SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates began withdrawing Sunday from positions they seized from the internationally-recognized government in the southern port city of Aden.
Both the southern separatists and the government forces are ostensibly allies in the Saudi-led military coalition that’s been battling the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen since 2015.
But a major rift in the coalition was exposed during the four days of fighting for control of Aden, as the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council wrested the city from government forces. More than 70 people were killed in the clashes.
The UAE is the dominant force in Yemen’s south, where it has an estimated 90,000 allied militiamen and has long been at odds with the government, which is largely based in Saudi Arabia.
The two U.S.-allied Gulf monarchies appear to have diverging interests in Yemen, where the stalemated war has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and drawn mounting criticism in Washington.
Saudi Arabia views the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north as a major national security threat, in part because the Houthis have launched numerous cross-border missile attacks targeting the Saudi capital and other cities. The UAE, which recently began withdrawing troops from Yemen, appears more interested in securing its interests in the south — which lies along major trading routes linking Africa to Asia — than waging a war that appears increasingly unwinnable.
Saudi Arabia had responded angrily to the takeover in Aden, calling for an immediate cease-fire and ordering the separatists to pull back as Saudi troops moved to secure government buildings. On Sunday, Saudi state TV reported that the separatists had begun withdrawing.
The coalition said Sunday it struck a target that posed a “direct threat” to the government, without elaborating, and warned of further military action if the separatists did not pull back.
Yemeni officials said the UAE-backed fighters had withdrawn from the streets but still held military positions seized in recent days, and were still stationed outside the presidential palace. Other officials at Aden’s airport said flights had resumed after being halted since Thursday because of the clashes. All of them spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
The government forces that were expelled from Aden are led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been based Saudi Arabia for five years. Officials within his government have said Hadi wants to return to Aden, but his Saudi hosts would prefer he remain close at hand in their capital, Riyadh.
Hadi’s interior minister, Ahmed al-Maisar, sharply criticized Saudi Arabia for remaining silent during the past four days while fighting raged in Aden. He spoke in a video released Sunday that was recorded while he said he was awaiting evacuation from Aden to Saudi Arabia a day earlier.
The current crisis began last week following the funeral of a separatist leader killed in a Houthi rocket attack. After his funeral in Aden, southern separatists attacked the nearby presidential palace. At the time, Hani Bin Braik, a separatist leader and former Cabinet minister, called for the overthrow of the government.
Bin Braik tweeted Sunday that the southern separatists accept Hadi as president and are committed to the coalition, but want his Cabinet replaced. The government has said it will not negotiate with the separatists until they hand over all the military positions they seized.
Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a non-profit research institute, said the separatists “withdrawing from installations won’t make a huge difference right now, as the Hadi government forces have largely dispersed.” He told The Associated Press that Saudi Arabia was likely trying to “save face and work out if there is a deal to be done” between the government and the UAE-backed separatists, whose goal was to “lay the groundwork for the formations of a separate southern state.”
Yemen was split into two countries, in the north and south, during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1994.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement Sunday that preliminary reports indicate as many as 40 people have been killed and 260 wounded in Aden since Aug. 8.
Elsewhere in Yemen, the Houthi-run health ministry claimed an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition killed at least 11 people, including four children and three women, and wounded at least 18 people in the northern Hajjah province.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.