Fighting rages in Yemeni city of Aden; palace and airport attacked

Forces supporting and opposing Yemeni President Hadi battle in southern port city of Aden

Fighting raged Thursday in the southern port city of Aden between supporters and opponents of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, shutting down the international airport and leaving more than a dozen people dead, according to officials and witnesses.

Violence has been spiraling in poor but strategic Yemen, threatening to erupt into all-out civil war. The country has been plagued by turmoil since former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power nearly four years ago amid a popular uprising, but the latest fighting in Aden, Yemen’s main commercial center, appeared to mark a volatile new phase.

The rapidly deteriorating situation has alarmed the U.S. administration, which is concerned that Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate -- considered one of the organization’s most dangerous affiliates -- will be able to benefit from the chaos and strengthen itself.

Hadi had taken refuge in Aden, his power base, after the takeover of the capital, Sana, by Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels. Thursday’s fighting pitted a special forces unit loyal to the Houthis against a paramilitary group backing the president, known as the Popular Committees.

The clashes went on for hours, with the two sides using automatic and heavy weapons, officials and witnesses said.

At the airport, the fighting forced the emptying of a Cairo-bound flight that was about to take off, with passengers hustled into the terminal. The governor of Aden province, Abdulaziz bin Habtoor, said Hadi loyalists had regained control of the airport after several hours of fighting.

Habtoor, in a televised address, accused the Houthis of staging two airstrikes against Hadi’s presidential palace in Aden, which missed their mark. Fighting also took place in the vicinity of Aden’s branch of the Central Bank and other government buildings.

The Houthis, who seized control of Sana last year, forced Hadi to resign and put him under house arrest. But he managed to make his way to Aden and retracted his resignation, saying it was given under duress. He remains Yemen’s internationally backed leader; his rival, Saleh, is widely believed to be linked to the Houthis.

Al-Alayaa is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

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