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Yemeni militia leader says his fighters are stationed at mysterious island air base

Aerial view of air base under construction
An air base under construction is seen on Mayun Island, off Yemen, in this June 1 satellite photo.
(Planet Labs)

A militia leader and nephew of Yemen’s late strongman president has acknowledged that his Emirati-backed fighters are stationed on an island in a crucial maritime chokepoint where a mysterious air base is now under construction.

The comments by Tariq Saleh come as ship-tracking data show that at least two Emirati-owned vessels have traveled to Mayun Island since an Associated Press story in May highlighted the base’s construction.

The United Arab Emirates has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the base. However, a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels who hold its capital, Sanaa, later acknowledged having “equipment” on the island in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

While no country has claimed the air base, shipping traffic associated with a prior attempt to build a massive runway across the 3.5-mile-long island years ago links back to the UAE as well. Officials associated with Yemen’s internationally recognized government have demanded a formal investigation into the base.

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In an interview published Monday by the Arabic service of Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news agency, Saleh acknowledged the presence of troops from his National Resistance Forces militia on Mayun Island.

“We have forces affiliated with the Yemeni Coast Guard ... present on the island of Mayun, and there is also a small force of the Arab coalition forces present on the island represented by the Saudi forces,” Saleh said, according to Sputnik. “The runway was built to provide future logistical support for the joint forces on the western coast, or for any other parties.”

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He added that Mayun “is a Yemeni island and will remain in Yemen.”

Saleh, like his late uncle, once fought alongside the Iranian-backed Houthis and then switched sides in late 2017 when the Houthis killed his uncle, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now based in the Yemeni city of Mokha, Saleh is believed to have as many as 20,000 fighters under his command, said Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen analyst.

In May, Saleh told the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies that his militia was in a “partnership” with the UAE.

A report this year by a United Nations panel of experts, quoting Yemen’s internationally recognized government, said Saleh’s forces are “backed by the UAE and do not come under the General Staff or Ministry of Defense.” Other UAE-backed forces have even battled other Yemeni government troops in the past.

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Military officials with Yemen’s government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, earlier told the Associated Press that the UAE was building the runway. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly to journalists.

Mayun, also known as Perim Island, is located about two miles off Yemen’s southwestern edge. World powers have recognized the island’s strategic location for hundreds of years, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

A runway the length of the one built on Mayun can accommodate attack, surveillance and transport aircraft.

Since June 1, at least two Emirati-flagged vessels have traveled to Mayun, according to ship-tracking data that the AP analyzed from the website MarineTraffic.com. One, the landing craft Hawaya, came at night June 1. The other, the cargo vessel Naayem, docked there twice June 4, and again Thursday.

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Both vessels also have shuttled to Mokha and Mukalla, a city in eastern Yemen associated with the Emirati military campaign in the country, before returning to the UAE.

Both the Hawaya and the Naayem are associated with Abu Dhabi-based Khalid Faraj Shipping, a firm that’s part of Liwa Marine Services. The companies did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.


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