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Yemeni officials demand answers over mysterious new UAE-linked air base

After satellite images show runway, hangars rapidly built on Mayun Island, lawmaker accuses Abu Dhabi of undermining Yemen’s internationally recognized government

A mysterious air base is seen being built on Yemen's volcanic Mayun Island in this April 11, 2021, satellite photograph from Planet Labs Inc. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
A mysterious air base is seen being built on Yemen's volcanic Mayun Island in this April 11, 2021, satellite photograph from Planet Labs Inc. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Yemeni officials demanded answers Wednesday after an Associated Press report highlighted a mysterious air base being built on a Yemeni island in one of the world’s crucial maritime chokepoints.

A lawmaker asked Yemen’s internationally recognized government if the United Arab Emirates built the facility as data in the AP report links the UAE to the construction.

Another official openly criticized the UAE for “undermining” the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition fought on the government’s behalf when it entered Yemen’s long war in 2015 against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now holding its capital.

The UAE, home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has not responded to repeated requests for comment regarding the base and offered no immediate reaction Wednesday to the officials’ comments.

The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever controls it to project power into the strait and easily launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen, convulsed by a years-long bloody war. It also provides a base for any operations into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and nearby East Africa.

Satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. obtained by the AP showed dump trucks and graders building a 1.85 kilometer (6,070-foot) runway on the island on April 11. By May 18, that work appeared complete, with three hangars constructed on a tarmac just south of the runway. Images from Tuesday showed vehicles parked at the base’s newly built hangars.

A runway of that length can accommodate attack, surveillance and transport aircraft. An earlier effort, begun toward the end of 2016 and later abandoned, had workers try to build an even-larger runway over 3 kilometers (9,800 feet) long, which would allow for the heaviest bombers. That earlier effort also saw ships linked to the UAE take part in the construction.

A mysterious air base is seen being built on Yemen’s volcanic Mayun Island in this April 11, 2021 satellite photograph from Planet Labs Inc. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Military officials with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, say the UAE is building the runway. The officials, speaking earlier to the AP on condition of anonymity as they didn’t have authorization to brief journalists, say Emirati ships transported military weapons, equipment and troops to Mayun Island in recent weeks.

The military officials said recent tension between the UAE and Hadi came in part from an Emirati demand for his government to sign a 20-year lease agreement for Mayun Island, also known as Perim Island. Emirati officials have not acknowledged any disagreement and said they were withdrawing from the war in 2019.

Hadi’s government has been critical of the UAE, especially for backing southern separatist groups during its military campaign in Yemen. The separatists have gotten into shootouts with forces loyal to the internationally recognized government, forcing the Saudis to intervene several times. An Emirati airstrike on behalf of the separatists also killed at least 30 troops backing Hadi in 2019. The UAE has backed other militias in the war as well.

Yemeni lawmaker Ali al-Mamari wrote a letter to the government demanding more details.

“There is information suggesting that the UAE is building a military base in the Mayun island without the knowledge of the member states,” al-Mamari wrote. “Is the government familiar with what is happening on the island? And what measures has it taken?”

Another lawmaker, Ali Ashal, similarly asked for more information after facing what he described as silence after earlier raising concerns about the UAE’s presence in Yemen.

Mohammed Qaisan, an undersecretary to Yemen’s Information Ministry with the internationally recognized government, tweeted that the UAE had “tampered” with Mayun Island. He also criticized the Emirates for its “continuous support for the illegally armed militias in liberated areas,” referring to the southern separatists.

“This requires a firm stance from the government as silence on this made it pursue this and gave the Houthi militia an opportunity to undermine the legitimacy of the Yemeni government,” Qaisan wrote.

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