Rift widens in Saudi-Emirati coalition as separatists storm key port city and force government troops to flee.
Separatists in Yemen regained full control of the country’s interim capital, Aden, on Thursday after they pushed back troops from the UN-recognised government, officials from both sides said.
The news came as air raids hit Yemeni government forces battling for the southern port city, killing at least 30 soldiers, according to a local commander.
Separatist forces “completely [took] control the city of Aden along with its entrances”, Haitham Nezar, a spokesman for the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), told AFP news agency on Thursday.
A government security source also confirmed Aden was now under the control of the STC, saying government soldiers who entered parts of the city on Wednesday “withdrew from Aden” to nearby Abyan province.
The fighting has opened a new front in a complex war that has already killed tens of thousands of people and sparked what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
It also reflects a rift within a pro-government coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – which has trained and supported the separatists – fighting Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, in the north.
The UAE seems to have been “planning this for quite some time” pursuing its own foreign policy in the war-ravaged country, Sami Hamdi, of the UK-based media group International Interest, told Al Jazeera.
The clashes between the two sides – who for years have fought alongside each other against the Houthis – have raised concerns the famine-threatened country could break apart entirely.
‘Aden is fine’
On Wednesday, the internationally-recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadiclaimed it seized Aden back from the separatists, who captured the strategic city on August 10 after a fierce battle.
Nezar said separatist forces were now setting their sights on Abyan and Shabwa provinces, which were retaken by government troops earlier this week.
“Aden is fine,” STC Vice President Hani bin Breik wrote on Twitter on Thursday, as he posted pictures of himself and other southern leaders touring the streets of the city, including the airport.
He warned fleeing government loyalists of punishment after their brief takeover.
Deadly air raids appeared to assist the separatists in recapturing the southern city.
Colonel Mohamed al-Oban, a Yemeni commander of the special forces in Abyan province, said his troops were headed towards Aden on Thursday when the air raids took place.
He did not say who was behind the air attacks only that the planes were from the Saudi-led coalition.
However, Yemen’s government accused the United Arab Emirates of launching the attacks against its soldiers.
“The Yemeni government condemns the Emirati air strikes against government forces in the interim capital Aden and in Zinjibar, which resulted in civilian and military casualties,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami said in a tweet.
“We hold the UAE fully responsible for this explicit extrajudicial targeting.”
Hadhrami urged Saudi Arabia “to stand by the legitimate government and stop this illegal and unjustified military escalation.”
Officials in the UAE declined to immediately comment.
A Yemeni journalist in Aden, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said clashes between government forces and the STC were continuing in Aden.
“It is a matter of time before the government forces take control over all of Aden,” he said.
Doha-based Yemeni political analyst Saeed Thabit also told Al Jazeera fighting between government forces and the southern separatists was not over.
“No party at this point has a decisive victory over the other,” he said.
Thabit said both sides were mobilising forces and bringing in heavy weapons for the fight to control the key port city.
“The battle for Aden is complicated as the battle lines are shifting back and forth by the hour,” he said.
Thabit said while government forces took control of parts of Aden, other areas such as Buraiqah – where the coalition has a military base – Muaala and Tawahi were still under the control of the UAE and its allied fighters.
New war front
Catherine Shakdam, head of the Yemen department at London-based think-tank Next Century Foundation, told Al Jazeera the separatists will remain in control of Aden because of a weak Hadi government.
“I think, realistically, that it is very likely that the secessionists will remain in control of the seaport Aden. It is after all a stronghold of the secessionist movement, and has been for many decades now.”
Shakdam said the weak Hadi government and the advancement of Houthi rebels emboldened the separatists who realise it “is an opportunity they cannot miss”.
She said the situation was complicated for the Saudis and the UAE but also for the Houthis, who previously supported a partition of the country but “no longer believe there should be two Yemens”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meeting in Washington with Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, called for a negotiated resolution.
Pompeo and the prince “agreed that dialogue represents the only way to achieve a stable, unified and prosperous Yemen,” the State Department said in a statement.
The meeting came after The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, said US President Donald Trump’s administration was pursuing secret talks with the Houthis in hopes of winding down the devastating five-year war.