UAE-backed Yemen separatists seize Aden presidential palace
Southern separatists in Yemen said Saturday they had seized the presidential palace in second city Aden after fierce battles with loyalist forces.
The deadly clashes reflect deep divisions between secessionists and loyalist forces, both of whom have fought Shiite Houthi rebels.
Yemeni President Abderabbo Mansour Hadi, based in Saudi Arabia, is backed by a Riyadh-led coalition battling the Huthis who hail from Yemen's north.
But another member of the anti-Houthi coalition, trained by Riyadh's coalition ally the United Arab Emirates, has since Wednesday been battling loyalists in Aden, the temporary base of Hadi's government.
The UAE-backed Security Belt force, dominated by fighters seeking renewed independence for the south, overran three military barracks belonging to Hadi's forces on Saturday as fighting rocked other parts of the city.
Later in the day, a Security Belt official told AFP the force had seized the presidential palace - largely symbolic, due to Hadi's absence - without a fight.
"Two hundred soldiers from the Presidential Guard were given safe passage out of the palace," the official said.
An eyewitness confirmed the complex had been handed over.
An AFP correspondent earlier reported seeing separatist fighters surrounding a tank which they claimed they had seized after overrunning a presidential guard base.
The Security Belt force is largely made up of members of the separatist Southern Transitional Council.
The STC's spokesman said Saturday the situation was "stable" and that the council was working to restore the water network, damaged in the fighting.
Southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990 and the north is widely perceived to have imposed unification by force.
The latest clashes "threaten to tip southern Yemen into a civil war within a civil war," the International Crisis Group think tank warned.
"Such a conflict would deepen what is already the world's worst humanitarian crisis and make a national political settlement harder to achieve," it said.
'Robust intervention needed'
Ties between the Security Belt and Hadi loyalists have been strained for years, and this week was not the first time they have engaged in armed clashes.
In January 2018, they fought three days of battles that killed 38 people and wounded 222 others after the government prevented a rally by separatists.
The Security Belt has accused Hadi's backers of allowing Islamists into their ranks and of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
"In the past, half-measures helped de-escalate simmering tensions in the south," Crisis Group said.
But "today's circumstances require robust diplomatic intervention from the UN, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to avoid the worst and help forge a durable solution."
International Committee of the Red Cross Yemen Chief Franz Rauchenstein tweeted that all sides should spare "civilians and residential areas from confrontations".
The Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to back the government against the Houthis, who are backed by Riyadh's regional rival Iran.
The Houthis had overrun large parts of northern and western Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, which they still control.
On Thursday, Hadi's government urged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to put pressure on the Security Belt to avoid a military escalation in Aden.
Yemen's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Al-Hadhrami tweeted Saturday that actions by the separatist Southern Transitional Council in Aden were "a coup against the legitimate institutions of the state".
"It was those institutions that the (Saudi-led) coalition came to restore and support after the Houthi coup in 2014," he wrote.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan expressed "deep concern" on Saturday over the violence in Aden and called for a "de-escalation".
He "called for a responsible and serious dialogue to end the differences... while maintaining security and stability," the official Emirati news agency reported.
He said the UAE was "exerting all efforts to calm and de-escalate the situation in Aden", adding that the two camps should focus their efforts on fighting the Huthis instead of each other.
He also called on the UN's Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths "to make all possible efforts to end the escalation in Aden".
'Attacks on civilians'
The latest upsurge in fighting flared on Wednesday during the funeral of a senior Security Belt commander killed earlier this month in a drone and missile attack on a training camp west of Aden.
The commander was among 36 people killed - many of them newly graduated cadets -- in the aerial attack, claimed by the Huthis.
But the separatist STC accused the Islamist Al-Islah party of having killed the commander.
The UN human rights office later accused the Security Belt force of "reportedly carrying out and enabling retaliatory attacks against civilians" from northern Yemen.
Griffiths wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he was "alarmed by the military escalations in Aden".
The fighting has left at least 18 dead and scores wounded, medics and security sources have said.
On Friday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) tweeted that it had treated 75 people in one of its hospitals in Aden since Thursday night.
Since 2015, fighting between the Houthis and Yemeni loyalists backed by the Saudi-led coalition has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, aid agencies say.
The conflict has also forced some 3.3 million people from their homes, according to the UN.
It says over 24 million people, some 80 percent of the population, need humanitarian aid.