At least 26 people were killed Wednesday as explosions rocked Yemen’s Aden airport moments after a new unity government flew in, in what some officials charged was a “cowardly” attack by Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
Although all government ministers were reported to be unharmed, more than 50 people were wounded, medical and government sources told AFP in the southern city, with the casuality toll feared likely to rise.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was preparing a “mass casualty medical response plan”.
As smoke billowed out of the airport terminal from an initial blast, with debris strewn across the area and people rushing to tend to the wounded, a second explosion took place.
Video footage shot by AFP appears to show missile-like ordnance striking the airport apron — that moments before had been packed with crowds — and exploding into a ball of intense flames.
It was not immediately clear what had caused the explosions.
Sporadic gunfire was heard soon after.
Yemen’s internationally recognised government and southern separatists formed a power-sharing cabinet on December 18, forging a joint front against the Huthi rebels who have seized the capital Sanaa and much of the north.
Both Yemeni Information Minister Moammar Al-Eryani and Prime Minister Moeen Abdulmalik Saeed said that all the members of the government were safe.
“We assure our great people that members of the government are fine, and we assure you that the cowardly terrorist attack by the Iran-supported Huthi militia will not deter us from carrying out our patriotic duty,” Eryani said on Twitter.
– ‘Unacceptable act of violence’ –
Saeed tweeted that the “terrorist attack… was part of the war waged against Yemen and its people”, but stopped short of accusing the Huthi insurgents.
Yemen’s government spokesman Rajih Badi called for an international investigation into the “terrorist” attack he said targeted “all members of the cabinet”.
“It is too soon to accuse any party before an investigation reveals who executed the attack, including (accusing) the Huthis,” he told AFP, adding those injured included civilians, security guards and local officials.
Meanwhile, UN envoy Martin Griffiths condemned the attack on Twitter, calling it an “unacceptable act of violence”.
“I wish the cabinet strength in facing the difficult tasks ahead,” he said. “This unacceptable act of violence is a tragic reminder of the importance of bringing Yemen urgently back on the path towards peace.”
Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, also condemned the blasts.
“A despicable attempt to cause carnage and chaos and bring suffering when Yemenis had chosen to move forward together,” he said.
The cabinet members arrived in Aden days after being sworn in by Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against the insurgents.
Hadi fled to the Saudi-capital Riyadh after Sanaa fell to the Huthis in 2014.
– Humanitarian crisis –
Tens of thousands, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in Yemen’s grinding five-year war, which has triggered what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
The new government includes ministers loyal to Hadi and supporters of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), as well as other parties.
While all oppose Huthi rebels, deep divisions have grown between the forces, and the Riyadh-sponsored push to form the unity government was designed to mend rifts.
Saudi Arabia has been encouraging the unity government to quell the “war within a civil war” and to bolster the coalition against the Huthis, who are poised to seize the key town of Marib, the last government stronghold in the north.
In recent months, the rebels have stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia — including its critical oil infrastructure — in retaliation for the Riyadh-led military campaign.
Yemen also still hosts a significant jihadist presence, including Al-Qaeda and militants loyal to the Islamic State group, despite two decades of air and drone strikes by the United States.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the US considers the terror group’s most dangerous branch, has thrived in the chaos of Yemen’s civil war between pro-government forces and the Huthi rebels.
It has carried out operations against both the Huthis and government forces.
The unity government formation comes a month before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, who was critical of Saudi Arabia during his campaign amid the humanitarian disaster in Yemen since Riyadh’s intervention in the conflict in 2015.