SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen’s president removed a half brother of former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh on Friday as head of the air force, replacing nearly 20 top officers but leaving Saleh’s son, nephew and other allies in place as heads of important military units.
The reshuffle came as al Qaeda militants, who have exploited instability during a year of protests against Saleh to boost their activities, launched two attacks against government sites.
Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had served as Saleh’s deputy, took power in February after standing as the only candidate in a presidential election, part of a deal negotiated by Yemen’s Gulf neighbours for Saleh to step down after 33 years in power.
State news agency Saba said Hadi appointed General Rashed Ali Nasser al-Jund as air force commander, replacing Saleh’s half brother, General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, who was made an assistant to the defense minister.
Under the power transfer deal, Hadi is tasked with reunifying the army, which had split during the year-long uprising against Saleh’s rule, with some units openly siding with protesters.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and the United States both backed the transition deal, partly due to concerns over the expansion of al-Qaeda’s regional wing in a country next to major Red Sea oil shipping lanes.
Saba said that a senior army officer loyal to dissident General Ali Mohsen, who broke away from Saleh after the protests began, was also replaced.
The reshuffle did not affect Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ex-president’s son and commander of the Republican Guards, or Saleh’s nephew, Brigadier General Yehia Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, who heads the paramilitary Central Security Forces.
Also replaced were the governors of four provinces, including that of Taiz, a staunch Saleh ally who led a bloody crackdown against protesters, and the governor of southern Abyan province, where al Qaeda’s regional wing has seized swathes of territory.
“This is the largest military shake-up in recent times. It took many by surprise,” said Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for Yemen’s embassy in Washington.
Analysts said Hadi appeared to have tried to be balanced, by replacing officials from both rival camps.
“The decisions show that President Hadi is distinguished as a responsible commander. I believe the decisions have been taken in consultation with all political parties,” Yemeni analyst Ali Saif Hassan said.
Al QAEDA ATTACKS
A suspected al Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up near a police building in southern Yemen on Friday, a security official said, hours after two militants died when a bomb they were carrying on a motorbike went off prematurely near a paramilitary police headquarters in the southern port city of Aden.
There were no other reports of casualties in either attack.
“It blew up as it was getting near the building,” the security official told Reuters, adding that he thought the dead men were suicide bombers.
The al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia said it was behind the botched attack, and that its two fighters had been “martyred” after their device exploded by mistake.
“The mujahideen (holy warriors), may God bless them both, were on their way to carry out a jihadi operation against a target linked to the puppet Sanaa regime,” the group said in an emailed statement said.
The group also rejected as “false and ridiculous” a government report that military and security forces had killed more than 100 militants in the past few days.
Al Qaeda-linked militants have often used motorbikes for armed attacks on military checkpoints in the past, as well as for some suicide attacks.
Last April, suspected al Qaeda gunmen on motorbikes attacked a military checkpoint outside Zinjibar, in the flashpoint southern province of Abyan. A passing shepherd was killed in that attack, a child wounded, and two soldiers were hurt, a local official said at the time.
Friday’s incident came a day after authorities beefed up security at foreign missions and government sites in the capital Sanaa over warnings of a possible al Qaeda attack.
“We have received information concerning plans by al Qaeda to move its operations to Sanaa,” a security official told Reuters. “We believe it is preparing to carry out these operations using car bombs any time soon.”
Yemen is battling Islamist militants in the south of the country from Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law).
President Hadi took office in late February, vowing to fight the militants after Saleh, long a key figure in Washington’s fight against al Qaeda, left office.
The majority of attacks have taken place in southern Yemen, where most of Ansar al-Sharia’s fighters are based. In their deadliest attack, militants killed at least 110 soldiers and took dozens hostage on March 4 in Zinjibar.
The government responded with air strikes and the United States has repeatedly used drones to attack militants.
Writing by Sami Aboudi and Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Myra MacDonald