SANAA, Yemen — Loyalists of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh seized the country's main airport Saturday as tanks and armored vehicles occupied the tarmac and forced authorities to cancel flights, a day after a military shake-up in which key commanders were fired.
Driving pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, armed tribesmen along with troops in uniform blasted buildings of Sanaa International Airport and opened fire on one of the airport surveillance towers before surrounding the entire complex, blocking roads and turning away passenger vehicles.
The standoff highlighted the challenges facing the country's new leader, who must balance a promise to purge ex-regime elements from the army with the lingering influence of his predecessor.
At stake is the stability of the Arab world's poorest country where al-Qaida is poised to fill the vacuum.
Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, fired several generals and other figures from the old regime Friday in a bid to show he was making good on promises of reforms and to appease protesters worried Saleh is trying to wield power from behind the scenes. In his more than 30 years in power, Saleh had stacked key security and government posts with relatives and cronies.
The restructuring didn't touch the ex-president's son Ahmed, who kept command of the well-equipped and powerful Republican Guard, or Saleh's nephew, Yahia, the head of the Central Security Forces, and the show of force appeared to be an attempt to intimidate Hadi from trying to implement more sweeping reforms that would remove them and other family members.
Both men deployed forces to help with the airport siege, according to military officials.
Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the Mideast, stepping down in the face of protests according to a Gulf-brokered agreement under which he handed over power to Hadi, who was his vice president. But the deal allowed him to remain as head of his party, kept half cabinet ministries in place and did not stipulate that he must leave the country and some fear he may someday try to return to power.
Many Yemenis are worried about his loyalists who command military units. The army recently has suffered several defeats in its war against al-Qaida-linked militants who took control of several towns in the south of the country, and many believe that Saleh commanders may be actively sabotaging the campaign.
"Al-Qaida flourishes at times of conflict and its sleeper cells expand to even the capital Sanaa," political analyst Mansour al-Saghir said.
Among those fired were Saleh's half brother, the air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, and his nephew, Tariq, who headed the presidential guard. The air force commander was replaced by former Air Force commander Rashid al-Hanad but aides said he would not give up his post until Hadi also fires some of the ex-president's opponents.
They were referring to Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who defected last year to the mass uprising that called for Saleh's ouster and brought his First Armored Division to protect protesters. The two men are from the same tribe but are rivals.
"I will only step down if al-Ahmar leaves his position," aides quoted the air force commander as saying. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Later Saturday, a defense ministry official said that top security officials have pressed al-Ahmar to accept Hadi's decisions and that he agreed on pulling his forces and end the standoff at the airport.
Al-Ahmar denied during a meeting with security officials that he deployed troops and said the airport is occupied by tribesmen who are rival to Hadi's government, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, which Washington believes is the most dangerous arm of the terror group after repeated attempts to carry out bombings on American soil, has only grown stronger throughout the turmoil and has made substantial gains in the south. Intelligence officials said the terror network would likely try to exploit the internal fighting.
Saleh was a staunch U.S. ally in the war against terror, and the Americans hope Hadi can reinvigorate the fight but several Yemeni intelligence officials said the continued instability was threatening the effort.
The U.S. has poured more than $326 million in security and civilian assistance into Yemen since 2007. The funding flow, however, was abruptly turned off last year as political and security unrest raged.
While no agreements have been cemented, U.S. defense officials said as much as $75 million (euro57 million) in military assistance could begin to flow later this year. The plan is in line with the Obama administration's intention to provide significant security and civilian aid to Yemen in 2012-13 as long as the country continues to move toward a new government and funding is kept out of the hands of insurgents.
The U.S. and neighboring Gulf countries who participated in the peace effort issued a statement expressing "extreme worries toward the steps take to resist changes in Yemen."
Yemeni political analyst Sami Ghalib said that the latest measures would boost Hadi's popularity among protesters, "something Saleh and his loyalists would not like to see happening."