The assault, for which no group immediately claimed responsibility, threatens to ignite more turmoil in the Middle East nation already reeling from war and hunger. It was launched after the Yemeni government forged a political alliance with southern separatists, ending months of feuding that threatened to plunge the country into more conflicts and chaos.
Videos posted on social media showed that the blast occurred just as members of the new government were disembarking from their plane, belonging to national carrier Yemenia, which flew in from Saudi Arabia. Large plumes of white smoke billowed as people ran for cover and gunfire erupted. In one video, a destroyed van, surrounded by blood, shards of glass and debris, sat by the arrival hall, the building’s facade torn apart by the explosions.
“We were waiting to receive the new government,” said Mohamed Fadhil al-Jaabi, a spokesman for the chairman of the separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council. “The attack happened when they were getting off the plane.”
He said three missiles hit the airport, but other reports attributed the destruction to mortars.
The plane’s passengers included Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and other cabinet members, as well as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Said al-Jaber, according to Saudi state media. All members of the new government were accounted for and taken to safety, the Saudi media reported.
The new power-sharing government, brokered by Saudi Arabia this month, brought together the two main groups fighting Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels who control much of northern Yemen.
The Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had a contentious relationship with the influential separatists of the Southern Transitional Council, which wants independence for southern Yemen. In April, the separatists declared self-rule in Aden, a strategic port city, which touched off violence and concerns that Yemen’s conflict could escalate just as the United Nations was seeking a nationwide cease-fire to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In 2015, Yemen’s civil war deepened with the entry of a Saudi-led coalition of regional Sunni nations, backed by the United States. They sought to restore the Hadi government and prevent Iran from extending influence in the region through the Shiite Houthis.
A humanitarian crisis also worsened, becoming what the United Nations now calls the most severe humanitarian catastrophe in the world. Millions are without food and suffering from cholera and other diseases. More than 300,000 have fled their homes, among myriad other woes.
Western diplomats and U.N. officials condemned Wednesday’s attack.
In a tweet, Michael Aron, Britain’s ambassador to Yemen, described the “cowardly attack” on the airport as a “despicable attempt to cause carnage & chaos & bring suffering when Yemenis had chosen to move forward together.”
Martin Griffiths, a U.N. special envoy to Yemen, issued a statement wishing “the Cabinet strength in facing the difficult tasks ahead.” He added: “This unacceptable act of violence is a tragic reminder of the importance of bringing Yemen urgently back on the path towards peace.”
Raghavan reported from Cairo.