UPDATE 1-Main Yemen airport reopens after officers lift siege

Sun Apr 8, 2012 5:35pm BST

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* U.S. air strike misses al Qaeda leaders

* Washington supports reshuffle, new president (Adds officer killed in Taiz)

By Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA, April 8 (Reuters) - Yemen's main airport reopened on Sunday, a day after officers and tribesmen loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh forced it to close in protest at the sacking of the air force commander, a half-brother of Saleh.

The one-day showdown highlighted the continuing turmoil in the country despite a peace deal under which Saleh stood down after months of protests against his 33-year rule and was replaced in February by his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Local officials and tribal sources said rockets were fired, probably by a U.S. drone, at a suspected al Qaeda vehicle in central Shabwa province late on Saturday but missed their target.

As part of the agreement on Saleh's removal, Hadi had a mandate to restructure the armed forces to remove some commanders loyal to the former president.

His sacking of the air force commander, General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, enraged Saleh loyalists, and the Sanaa airport blockade on Saturday was a direct challenge to his authority, showing how Saleh's family can still influence Yemeni politics.

The state news agency Saba reported that flights at Sanaa airport had resumed, citing the head of the aviation authority.

A government official told Reuters the airport has been reopened after pressure by the United States and the Gulf Arab states which brokered the deal for Saleh to quit after months of demonstrations that paralysed the country.

"(They) have told Saleh's relatives that Sanaa airport is a 'red line' and cannot be closed," said the government official, who asked not to be named.

A source at Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party, which shares power with opposition parties, said the GPC was meeting Gulf ambassadors on Sunday, demanding the removal of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar as the price for accepting the air force commander's sacking.

Once Saleh's right-hand man, Mohsen and troops under his command turned against the then president last year, sparking clashes with Saleh loyalists.

U.S. WELCOMES RESHUFFLE

Friday's reshuffle, which left Saleh's son and nephew in place as heads of key military units, was welcomed by the United States, a main ally of the impoverished Arab nation.

"In spite of those who seek to derail the transition, President Hadi has demonstrated strong leadership by steadfastly implementing the agreed-upon political settlement," U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

"We join the diplomatic corps in Sanaa in urging all parties to cooperate fully with the presidential decree so that Yemen may continue to pursue a peaceful and orderly transition."

The problems Hadi inherited include a Shi'ite rebellion in the north and an emboldened wing of al Qaeda in the south, which is also home to a separatist movement trying to revive a socialist state that Saleh united with the north in 1990.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that troops had killed 16 al Qaeda militants in al-Koud, an area west of the southern city of Zinjibar, which is a stronghold of the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia.

Tribal sources said the presumed U.S. drone air strike on Saturday was aimed at al Qaeda leaders believed to have been travelling to the central province of Maarib. No casualties have been reported.

Washington has repeatedly used drones to attack militants in the strife-torn nation.

Separately, a security officer was killed in the southern city of Taiz by what the Saba state news agency described as a "terrorist". (Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Roche)

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