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Saleh loyalists seize Yemen airport after president fires top officials

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 with ties to Saleh were fired.

Driving pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, armed tribesmen along with troops in uniform blasted the 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 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 remove them and other family members.

Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the Mideast, stepping down in the face of protests and handing over power to Hadi, who was his vice president. But the Gulf-brokered deal allowed him to remain as head of his party, kept half of the cabinet ministries in place and did not stipulate that he leave the country.

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 Saleh commanders may be actively sabotaging the campaign.

Among those fired were Saleh's half-brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, and his nephew, Tariq, who headed the presidential guard.

The air force commander was replaced by former 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.

Later Saturday, a defense ministry official said top security officials have pressed al-Ahmar to accept Hadi's decisions and that he agreed on pulling his forces to 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 opposed to Hadi's government, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media.