Yemen Rebels Deny Responsibility, Blame Saudi Arabia for Deadly Airport Attack

Officials from Yemen's ruling rebel force have distanced themselves from the deadly attack that struck a southern city's international airport as a plane arrived bringing new members of the rival government.

The newly appointed cabinet and its entourage had just begun to depart the Yemenia Airbus A320 at Aden International Airport on Wednesday when violent explosions began to rock the crowded tarmac. The exact details of the frenzied bloody scenes that followed remain unclear. But the sounds of heavy shelling and sporadic gunfire could be heard, and around two dozen people were killed—none of whom appeared to be on the plane itself—and about twice as many were wounded.

The Yemeni government blamed the Ansar Allah movement, also known as the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebel group that took the capital six years ago, drawing a Saudi-led intervention that has plunged the country into all-out civil war that continues to this day.

The Yemini information minister tweeted a statement on the attack.

"We assure our ppl that all cabinet members r safe, &cowardly terrorist attack by Iran-backed Houthi militia on Aden airport will not deter us fm our duty & our life isn't more valuable than other Yemenis," Muammar al-Eryani tweeted. "May Allah have mercy on souls of martyrs, &wish fast recovery 4injured."

Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, who was on the plane, tweeted that he had survived the attack and was safe.

"The cowardly terrorist act that targeted Aden airport is part of the war being waged against the Yemeni state and our great people," the tweet read, "and it will only increase our insistence on fulfilling our duties until the coup is ended and the state restored and stability, mercy for the martyrs and healing for the wounded."

Officials have ordered an investigation into the attack, while those already accused deflected blame

Abdulelah Hajar, a veteran Yemeni diplomat who serves now as adviser to the presidency of the Houthi-led Supreme Political Council, offered his condolences for the victims and issued a thinly-veiled allegation against Saudi Arabia.

"It does not require intelligence or analysis to know that whoever undertook the criminal terrorist act by bombing Aden airport is the same one who undertook the aggression against Yemen six years ago and killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of innocent Yemenis by airstrikes and imposed siege by land, air and sea," Hajar wrote on Facebook.

In remarks given to Al Jazeera, fellow Supreme Political Council member Mohammed al-Bukhaiti also put the blame on Saudi Arabia and its ongoing dispute with the Southern Transitional Council, an influential separatist organization backed by the United Arab Emirates.

Others in Yemen's pro-Houthi leadership blamed the UAE-supported faction, which violently split with the government of exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour in August of last year. Saudi Arabia has attempted to smooth over the feud with the so-called Riyadh Agreement that saw a cabinet balancing north-south interests sworn in just two days ago despite ongoing uneasiness.

"In fact, the conflict in Aden and in the various Yemeni governorates occupied by the coalition of aggression against Yemen has been raging for a long time, and it is not only a political conflict, but rather a military conflict and a large-scale war, and the Riyadh Agreement came as an imposition from Saudi Arabia on the parties, especially those that follow the UAE," Nasreddin Amer, Deputy Secretary of the pro-Houthi Information Ministry, told Newsweek.

Amer, who also serves as head of the Ansar Allah Media Center, said the Southern Transitional Council likely lashed out out of frustration over the agreement's terms.

"They have no desire for the implementation of this agreement and, as a result of their fear of Saudi pressure, they turned to using another method of conflict," Amer said. "This other method is what happened today in Aden, as the fire came out from under the ashes into the open, and the government they wanted to be a solution turned into a problem and a crisis."

yemen, airport, attack, plane, explosion
A video grab shows the moment an ordnance hit the airport in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden on December 30, shortly after the arrival of a plane carrying members of a new unity government. At least two explosions were heard as the cabinet members sworn in just two days ago in Saudi Arabia left the airport in Yemen. AFPTV/Getty Images

The Yemen Solidarity Council, an overseas monitor recognized by Houthi leadership, expressed condemnation of the attack as well, and noted that it did not bode well for unity efforts under the administration of Hadi, who fled to Aden after the Houthi takeover of Sanaa only to later flee to a hotel in Riyadh after the violent split last year between his government and the Southern Transitional Council.

"We condemn the attack and pray for the civilian victims & relatives of the blast," the council said in a statement sent to Newsweek.

"However, the attack indicates in some ways that the Hadi hotel regime isn't welcome in Yemen at all, and that the new Riyadh-agreement government still suffers from bloody & continuous infighting for the detriment of the common Yemeni civilian."

Both Hadi's government, now hosted in apartments in the Saudi capital, and the Aden-based Southern Transitional Council are aligned against the Houthis but the latter calls for southern autonomy. The two sides were brought together under Saudi-led talks known as the Riyadh Agreement that paved the way for the formation of a new cabinet sworn in on Monday to balance north-south representation.

Another Houthi-aligned official, Tariq Mustafa Salam, who acts as the rebel governor of Aden province, also accused Saudi Arabia of targeting the officials in an attempt to sabotage the very deal the kingdom helped to strike.

Riyadh, for its part, has condemned the airport attack.

"The targeting of the Yemeni government upon its arrival at Aden airport is a cowardly terrorist act targeting all the Yemeni people, their security, stability and their daily life, " Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jabir tweeted," and confirms the extent of disappointment and confusion that the makers of death and destruction have reached as a result of the success of the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and the formation of the Yemeni government and its initiation to start its tasks to serve the Yemeni people."

The UAE Foreign Ministry issued a similar statement, saying Abu Dhabi "strongly condemned" what it called a "cowardly terrorist attack" and a "sinister project" meant to destabilize the country.

"The Ministry stressed that the continuation of these attacks illustrates the nature of the danger facing the region from the Houthi coup, and the efforts of these militias to undermine security and stability in the region," the statement said, " stressing that the Arab coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to support and support everything that achieves the interest of the brotherly Yemeni people and contributes to its stability and its security."

But one member of the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council that controls Aden also faulted Saudi Arabia in comments to The New York Times, blaming it not for the attack but for failing to secure the airport properly ahead of the plane's arrival.

Among the dead in the as yet unclaimed attack were aid workers, including at least one member of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said three more members were wounded and two more remain missing. They, along with several officials, journalists and civilians believed to have been killed, are among more than 250,000 people people who have lost their lives since the outbreak of the Yemen conflict in late 2014.

In addition to the ongoing conflict between the Houthi-led rebel alliance and the Saudi coalition that includes a number of Arab states as well as the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council, attacks have been launched by Sunni Islamist militants such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).

The United States has occasionally conducted raids against these groups and has actively supported the Saudi-led war effort against the Houthis, which both Washington and Riyadh accused of receiving direct assistance from Tehran.

The U.S. has accused Iran of orchestrating unclaimed attacks in the region, including last year's acts of sabotage against tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and the missile and drone attack claimed by the Houthis against Saudi oil facilities that September.

State Department spokesperson Cale Brown said the U.S. too "strongly condemns" the Aden attacks Wednesday and offered condolences to the victims in a statement. He did not name the suspected perpetrators but noted that the timing and apparent target of the attacks "once again demonstrate the malicious intent of those trying to destabilize Yemen."

"Such attacks will not stop or undermine efforts to bring a lasting peace that the Yemeni people deserve," he added. "These violent acts must end, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. The United States supports the legitimate government of Yemen and stands with the people of Yemen as they work towards a better future for all Yemenis."

Citing threats from Iran, President Donald Trump's administration has blocked congressional efforts to halt U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in spite of lawmakers' human rights concerns. On Thursday, the State Department approved another arms sale worth $290 million to provide the kingdom with 3,000 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb I (SDB I) Munitions and related equipment.

"This proposed sale will support U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political stability and economic growth in the Middle East," the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.

Such sales have angered both the Houthis and Iran.

Iranian officials have yet to comment publicly on the Aden airport attack, though they have routinely denied direct support for the Houthis and have blamed Saudi Arabia and its U.S. sponsor for Yemen's ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis, considered by the United Nations to be the worst of its kind in the world.