SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A large explosion struck the airport in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on Wednesday, shortly after a plane carrying the newly formed Cabinet landed there, security officials said. At least 22 people were killed and 50 were wounded in the blast.
The source of the explosion was not immediately clear and no group claimed responsibility for attacking the airport. No one on the government plane was hurt.
Officials later reported another explosion close to a palace in the city where the Cabinet members were transferred following the airport attack. And the Saudi-led coalition later shot down a bomb-laden drone that attempted to target the palace, according to Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel.
The Cabinet reshuffle was seen as a major step toward closing a dangerous rift between the government of embattled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government is at war with Iran-allied Houthi rebels, who control most of northern Yemen as well as the country’s capital, Sanaa.
AP footage from the scene at the airport showed members of the government delegation disembarking as the blast shook the grounds. Many ministers rushed back inside the plane or ran down the stairs, seeking shelter.
Thick smoke rose into 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 Communication Minister Naguib al-Awg, who was on the plane, told The Associated Press that he heard two explosions, suggesting they were drone attacks. Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and the others were quickly whisked from the airport to Mashiq Palace.
Military and security forces sealed off the area around the the palace.
“It would have been a disaster if the plane was bombed,” al-Awg said, insisting the plane was the target of the attack as it was supposed to land earlier.
Prime Minister Saeed tweeted that he and his Cabinet were safe and unhurt. He called the explosions a “cowardly terrorist act” that was part of the war on “the Yemeni state and our great people.”
Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak blamed the Houthis for the attacks without offering evidence. Houthi officials did nor answer phone calls from the AP seeking comment.
Mohammed al-Roubid, deputy head of Aden’s health office, told the AP that at least 16 people were killed in the explosion and 60 were wounded. Later, the Interior Ministry raised the casualty toll to at least 22 dead and 50 wounded.
Images shared on social media from the scene showed rubble and broken glass strewn about near the airport building and at least two lifeless bodies, one of them charred, lying on the ground. In another image, a man tries to help another man whose clothes were torn to get up from the ground.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said two of its workers were killed in the airport blast, including a Yemeni national who helped coordinate ICRC’s air transport activities, and a Rwandan who was an X-ray technician.
It said three others were wounded, including one seriously, and that one was unaccounted for. Lebanon’s official news agency identified one of the wounded ICRC workers as Lebanon resident Yara Khawaja, the ICRC’s spokeswoman in Yemen.
“This is a tragic day for the ICRC and for the people of Yemen,” said Dominik Stillhart, ICRC’s director of operations.
Officials said another explosion hit close to the heavily fortified Mashiq Palace, where the Cabinet members were taken. The source of that blast and whether it occurred before or after the Cabinet members' arrival were not immediately known. There were no immediate reports of fatalities and the officials said the Cabinet members arrived safely.
U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, condemned the explosion as an “unacceptable act of violence.” He said in a tweet that it was “a tragic reminder of the importance of bringing #Yemen urgently back on the path towards peace.”
Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates' minister of state for foreign affairs, said the attack on Aden's airport was meant to destroy the power-sharing deal between Yemen's internationally recognized government and the southern separatists.
U.S. Ambassador in Yemen Christopher Henzel said the U.S. 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 towards a better future for all Yemenis,” he said.
Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League also condemned the attacks.
The Yemeni ministers were returning to Aden from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after being sworn in last week as part of a reshuffle following a deal with the separatists. Yemen’s internationally recognized government has worked mostly from self-imposed exile in Riyadh during the country’s years-long civil war.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, described the attack as a “cowardly terrorist act targeting the Yemeni people, their security and stability.”
Despite “the disappointment and confusion caused by those who create death and destruction,” the peace agreement between the government and southern separatists “will go forward,” he said.
Hadi, in exile in Saudi Arabia, announced the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month. Naming a new government was part of a power-sharing deal 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, which existed from 1967 until unification in 1990.
The blast underscores the dangers facing Hadi’s government in the port city, the scene of bloody fighting between forces of the internationally recognized government and the UAE-backed separatists.
In a video message posted on his Twitter account later, Saeed, the Yemeni prime minister, said his government was in Aden “to stay.” The city has been the seat of Hadi’s government since Houthi rebels overran the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Last year, the Houthis fired a missile at a military parade of newly graduated fighters of a militia loyal to the UAE at a military base in Aden, killing dozens.
In 2015, then-Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and members of his government survived a missile attack, blamed on the Houthis, on an Aden hotel used by the government.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been engulfed in civil war since 2014, when the Shiite Houthi rebels overran the north and Sanaa. The following year, a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to wage war on the Houthis and restore Hadi's government to power.
The war has killed more than 112,000 people and brought about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.