SANAA, Yemen (AP) – A large explosion hit the airport in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on Wednesday, shortly after a plane with the newly formed Cabinet landed there, security officials said. At least 25 people were killed and 110 wounded in the blast.
The internationally recognized government of Yemen said Iran-backed Houthi rebels fired four ballistic missiles at the airport. Rebel officials did not respond to calls from The Associated Press for comment. No one on the government plane was injured.
Officials later reported an explosion near a palace in the city to which cabinet members were transferred after the airport attack. The Saudi-led coalition later shot down a bomb-laden drone that wanted to target the palace, according to the Saudi Arabian Al-Arabiya TV channel.
The cabinet shuffle was seen as an important step towards closing a dangerous divide between the government of the fighting Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates. Hadi’s government and the separatists are nominal allies in Yemen’s years of civil war that control the Saudi-led, US-backed military coalition against the Houthis, who control most of northern Yemen as well as the country’s capital, Sanaa.
AP footage of the scene at the airport showed members of the government delegation boarding as the blast shook the site. Many ministers stormed the plane or ran down the stairs seeking refuge.
Thick smoke rose in the air from near the terminal building. Officials at the scene said they saw bodies lying on the tarmac and elsewhere at the airport.
Yemeni Communications Minister Naguib al-Awg, who was on the plane, told the Associated Press that he had heard two explosions, indicating that they were drone strikes. Premier Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and the others were quickly brought from the airport to Mashiq Palace.
Military and security forces sealed off the area around the palace.
“It would have been a disaster if the plane had been bombed,” Al-Awg said, insisting the plane was the target as it would have to land earlier.
Prime Minister Saeed tweeted that he and his cabinet are safe and unharmed. He called the blasts a “cowardly terrorist act” that was part of the war against “the Yemeni state and our great people”.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak blamed the Houthis for the attacks. His ministry later said in a statement that the rebels had fired four ballistic missiles at the airport and launched drone attacks on the palace, the headquarters of the Cabinet. They did not provide evidence.
Health Minister Qasem Buhaibuh said in a tweet that the attacks on the airport had killed 25 people and wounded 110 others, suggesting that the death toll could rise further because some of the wounds were serious.
Images shared on the scene on social media showed debris and broken glass lying scattered near the airport building, leaving at least two lifeless bodies, one of which was charred, on the ground. In another image, a man tries to help another man whose clothes have been torn to rise from the ground.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said three of its workers were killed during the blast at the airport: two Yemeni citizens and a Rwandan. Three other workers were injured. ICRC workers were traveling with other civilians at the airport when the blast occurred.
“This is a tragic day for the ICRC and for the people of Yemen,” said Dominik Stillhart, Director of the ICRC.
Yemeni Belqees television said its reporter Adeeb al-Ganabi was also killed during the blast at the airport. Information Minister Moammer al-Iryani said at least ten other journalists had been injured.
A statement from Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the Secretary-General had condemned the deplorable attack on Aden airport shortly after the arrival of the newly formed Yemeni cabinet, which killed dozens of people killed and wounded. ”
Anwar Gargash, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, said the attack on Aden’s airport was intended to destroy the power-sharing agreement between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the southern separatists.
The US ambassador to Yemen, Christopher Henzel, said the US condemned the attacks in Aden. “We stand with the Yemeni people as they strive for peace, and we support the new Yemeni government as it works for a better future for all Yemenis,” he said.
Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Western countries also condemned the airport attack.
Yemeni ministers have returned from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to Aden after being sworn in as a reformer last week following an agreement with the separatists. The internationally recognized government of Yemen mostly worked from self-imposed exile in Riyadh during the country’s long civil war.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, described the attack as a “cowardly terrorist act on the Yemeni people, their security and stability.”
Despite ‘the disappointment and confusion caused by those causing death and destruction’, the peace agreement between the government and southern separatists will ‘continue’, he said.
Hadi, in exile in Saudi Arabia, announced the cabinet reshuffle earlier this month.
The nomination of a new government was part of a power-sharing agreement between the Saudi-backed Hadi and the Emirati-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council, an umbrella group of militias seeking to restore an independent southern Yemen that existed from 1967 to unification in 1990.
The blast underscores the dangers facing the Hadi government in the port city, the scene of bloody battles between the forces of the internationally recognized government and the separatists backed by the UAE.
In a video message later posted on his Twitter account, Yemeni Prime Minister Saeed said his government is in Aden to stay. The city has been the seat of Hadi’s government since Houthi rebels invaded the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Last year, the Houthi fired a missile at a military parade of newly graduated fighters from a militia loyal to the UAE on a military base in Aden, killing dozens of people.
In 2015, then-Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and members of his government survived a rocket attack, which the Houthis accused of an Aden hotel used by the government.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has been embroiled in civil war since 2014 when the Houthis invaded the north and Sanaa. The following year, a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to wage war against the Houthis and to restore Hadi’s government to power.
The war killed more than 112,000 people and caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Magdy reports from Cairo. Associated Press author Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.