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ADEN, Yemen – There were some brief bursts of gunfire in the distance as we boarded the bus from the terminal to our plane on the tarmac in the airport of the Yemeni city of Aden. No one paid much attention. Tensions had been growing in the city for weeks. One of my fellow passengers greeted the noise with a hearty laugh and shouted "Erhebou!" — Yemeni Arabic for "Hello there!"
I took my window seat, 14F, and got out my Arabic novel for the flight to Cairo. For the next 20 minutes, passengers argued with crew over seating. "If people sit wherever they please, then we should not be issued with seat numbers," a young Yemeni woman speaking English lectured a flight attendant who wanted her to take a seat other than the one she was assigned.
Finally, everyone was seated. Then the captain's voice came over the intercom: "Will passengers please leave the aircraft immediately."
No one moved. "Will passengers please leave the aircraft, the airport has been closed," he said, more commanding this time.
Many still did not leave. "You must disembark now," a flight attendant barked.
As I and the around 150 other passengers left the aircraft and made our way back to the terminal, it became clear why. Bursts of heavy machine gunfire and explosions were frequent and near. Watching from the departure hall, we saw two armored pickup trucks mounted with machine guns speed onto the tarmac and open fire at targets somewhere to the east.
These were police special forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who had stormed the airport, trying to capture control from militiamen and troops loyal to the current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. We were caught in what would become an hours-long battle, part of the bigger conflict tearing apart this chaotic, impoverished nation.
Hadi had fled to Aden weeks earlier from Sanaa, which had been under house arrest by Shiite rebels known as Houthis who took over the capital and much of the north of the country. Aden — Yemen's second most important city and its economic hub — was once the capital of an independent South Yemen and, as Hadi is a southerner, it is full of his supporters. Other members of his government, including Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subeihi, also fled to Aden and they made it their de facto government capital.
Saleh, the country's longtime autocratic president who was ousted by a 2011 popular uprising, still retains loyalists around the country, and he has allied with the Houthis against Hadi.
From the large windows of the Aden airport departure hall, we watched the battle unfold. Some of the passengers pressed to the glass to watch intently, others sat in the seats as if at a theater. Besides our plane, there was another aircraft out on the tarmac, a Boeing 747 that I learned later was the presidential plane, flown in September from Sanaa to here, where Hadi thought it would be safe. By the end of fighting, it would be damaged by gunfire.
After an hour of shelling and gunfire, a convoy of a car and several pickup truckloads of pro-Hadi fighters — a mix of soldiers and militiamen — swept onto the tarmac. Out of the car stepped Defense Minister al-Subeihi in camouflage fatigues with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. I could see him arguing with airport officials. He then left, and I could hear the battle intensify, with tank-fire clearly audible and what sounded like mortars.
I didn't know what to do. My bag was in the plane's belly, no way to extract it. Staying at the airport was not an option. The pro-Saleh forces are among the best trained and equipped in Yemen, and they wanted to take the airport. Decision made: I had better move.
By this time, most of the 150 passengers from my flight had left and had made it to the airport hotel across the road. I knew that was a walk of about 100 meters (yards). What I didn't know was that that short stretch through the parking lot was now in full sight of those battling it out with assault rifles and RPGs down the road.
I put my head out of the airport's gate and I could hear gunfire. Not too close. So I speed-walked. The gunfire became more intense. It dawned on me that pro-Hadi militiamen were on my right too. So I was in the crossfire. I took shelter behind a car, joined by a man also trying to reach safety. The gunfire got louder and closer. Safer to run back to the airport. So I ran back in bursts of sprints to the next car or tree until I was safely back in the building.
There, a militiaman with an RPG rifle was taking shelter. Panting from my unscheduled workout, I called my office in Cairo to report on the gunbattle. Fighting subsided about 10 minutes later. Three airport officials offered to give me a lift in their rickety 1970s-era Japanese car. The driver had to take us closer to the battle, now revving back up to full throttle again, before he could make a right out of the airport road. I kept my head down and hoped for the best.
We made it out.
Later, the pro-Hadi troops and militiamen completely retook the airport. They then stormed the nearby base of the pro-Saleh police special forces.
When word got out that that base had fallen, the looting began. Hundreds of militiamen and civilians — men and young children — descended on the base.
When I arrived there in the late afternoon, the area outside the base's gate resembled a Sunday outdoor market. But this wasn't selling farm-fresh produce or home-baked cookies. Everyone was emerging from the base with something and, often, trying to sell it on the spot: window and door frames, water tanks, brand new rocket-propelled grenades in sealed plastic bags, ammunition boxes of all sizes, ceiling fans. Those who weren't selling were loading their booty on vehicles causing a massive traffic jam outside the base.
Children and young teens sagged under the weight of what they carried. Riot police helmets, green combat helmets, see-through police shields.
Two World War II-era tanks rumbled on the street outside, belching out black exhaust. These were the tanks of the pro-Hadi militiamen, who had been joined by civilians. One old man lay on a mattress on top of a tank. Others chewed qat, the Yemenis' favorite drug.
One woman rode atop a tank, wearing a traditional all-black robe and face veil. She waved the black, white, red and blue flag of once-independent South Yemen.