Deadly Explosion Rocks Yemeni Airport Just As New Government Members Land

Dec 30, 2020
Originally published on December 30, 2020 6:09 pm

Updated at 5:23 p.m. ET

A large explosion rocked the airport in Aden, Yemen, on Wednesday shortly after a jet landed carrying officials of the country's Saudi-backed government. Dozens of casualties were reported. Video from the scene shows hundreds of people were gathered on the tarmac when the blast struck.

People were still disembarking from the plane carrying members of Yemen's new government when the explosion hit, causing the crowd to scatter as they rushed for cover. At least 22 people were dead, The Associated Press reported.

News crews were filming the politicians' long-anticipated arrival — heralded as an important step in bringing stability to Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a proxy war. Aden has been adopted as Yemen's temporary capital because Iranian-backed Houthi rebels control the capital city, Sanaa.


There has been no claim of responsibility for the blast.

Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed — a holdover from a recent Cabinet shake-up — condemned what he called a cowardly terrorist act, saying that he and other members of the government remain in Aden and are unscathed. But local news outlet Aden al-Ghad later reported that at least one junior official was killed and several officials were wounded.

Hussam Radman, a journalist and researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies think tank, narrowly escaped with his life, having been just 70 to 100 feet away from the initial large explosion – which set him running. Other explosions followed, he said, leaving dozens of people wounded or dead.

"Of course, when we heard the first explosion, we tried to understand what was happening, we were confused about whether it was an explosive or a drone or a rocket," Radman told NPR. He added that he believes it was a missile attack – an idea that echoes several local media reports.

"Most of us were terrified and confused because we didn't know what was happening or where the threat was coming from. So people were running and attempting to escape the danger," Radman said. "We tried to go to an area without any asphalt because areas with asphalt always have lots of shrapnel."

The survivors waited for some time, he said, before returning to the area and "communicating with colleagues about who was alive, dead, who was well and who was wounded, the size of the damage and the victims."

Three Red Cross staff members were among the dead.

"The International Committee of the Red Cross is profoundly saddened that three of our colleagues were among those killed in Aden's airport explosion earlier today," the agency said in a statement.

The Red Cross workers were moving through the airport when the explosion hit, the aid agency said. Three of them were injured, including one person with serious wounds.

Doctors Without Borders said its hospital in Aden has received 17 people who were wounded in the attack, adding that another local hospital referred the cases.

It was meant to be a day to mark the success of more than a year of negotiations to end a power struggle between two groups ostensibly on the same side in Yemen's war.

"There was an environment of optimism and cheer around the arrival of this government," Radman said, noting the lengthy negotiations between rivals. The first explosion, he said, struck the reception area where the politicians were to be received. The blast hit just minutes before the officials stepped off the plane, he added.

Saudi Arabia leads an alliance of countries and local factions against Yemen's Houthi rebels. But fractures in that alliance have resulted in fighting between supporters of Yemen's exiled president and the separatist Southern Transitional Council, which seeks to restore independence to the former South Yemen. The ministers landing at Aden's airport from Saudi Arabia are part of a Cabinet meant to represent both these groups.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who did not travel with the Cabinet, has directed the military to mount a special investigation into the attack, which he said targeted the arrivals terminal of Aden International Airport. Hadi said he spoke to the government entourage to make sure they were safe.

In response to the blast, Martin Griffiths, U.N. special envoy for Yemen, said, "I strongly condemn the attack at Aden airport upon the Cabinet's arrival and the killing and injury of many innocent civilians. My sincere condolences and solidarity to all who lost loved ones."

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It was a day that was supposed to signify a step towards unity for at least a part of Yemen. But as members of a new government that's part of an alliance backed mainly by Gulf Arab countries arrived by plane, explosions rocked the airport, killing or wounding scores. Yemen has been mired in a civil war between the Houthi rebels backed by Iran and that alliance. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from Beirut.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: In the scene captured here on a local news channel, a crowd of journalists, soldiers and civilians are gathered on a runway at an airport in the Yemeni city of Aden to welcome members of a new government as they disembark from a plane. Then this...


SHERLOCK: ...An explosion - smoke and chaos, gunfire. Hundreds scatter in panic.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

HUSSAM RADMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Hussam Radman, a researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies think tank was at the airport.

RADMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He tells me there were dozens of dead and wounded. Most of them were other travelers or civilians awaiting the arrival of the new government. Officials in Aden say at least 22 people were killed and over 50 wounded in the attack. In Yemen's civil war, the Houthi movement, backed by Iran, ousted the government and took over the capital six years ago. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed an alliance of factions to fight the Houthis, but that alliance fractured and started fighting among itself. Today was meant to celebrate the results of a year of negotiation to rebuild that alliance and usher in the new unity government for the part of the country that it controls.

RADMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Although no group has officially claimed responsibility for the attack, Radman - the Yemeni researcher - says most believe this was done by the Houthis, who want to break up the new government. He says if that was their intention, it has backfired and that these factions are now even more united by their determination to defeat their common enemy.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

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