SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Clashes between a Yemeni separatist militia, backed by the United Arab Emirates, and forces loyal to the internationally recognized government killed at least three civilians and wounded nine in southern Abyan province Tuesday, security officials and local residents said.
The fighting between the two sides — ostensible allies in the Saudi-led coalition that for years has been fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, based in the north — has added another layer to the complex civil war in the Arab world’s most impoverished country.
After a 10-hour battle, the Security Belt militia, which is trained and financed by the UAE, overran a military camp belonging to the government’s special forces in the provincial capital, Zinjibar, and deployed across much of the city, said the officials and residents. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, while the residents spoke anonymously, fearing reprisal.
The separatists last week took over the port city of Aden, to the west of Zinjibar. Aden has functioned as the seat of President Abed Rabbo Manour Hadi’s government since the Houthis captured Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and much of the country’s north in 2014.
Hadi’s government said in a statement Tuesday that it blamed the UAE for the “armed rebellion” of the separatists, according to the state-run SABA news agency.
Yemen’s information minister, Moammer al-Iryani, earlier urged the Saudi-led coalition to pressure the militia to withdraw their forces from Zinjibar. Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami called for an “immediate and complete halt of military and financial support” by the UAE to the Yemeni separatists.
U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said Tuesday he was alarmed by the violence in Aden and Abyan. “I condemn the unacceptable efforts by the Southern Transitional Council to take control of state institutions,” he said.
Though a key member of the coalition, the UAE never threw its full support behind Hadi because of his ties to Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood group, a pan-Arab movement that many Arab countries, including the UAE, consider a terrorist organization.
After the separatists took control of Aden, the Saudi-led coalition ordered an immediate cease-fire and threatened to bomb them if they didn’t return to positions they held before the fighting.
The coalition also called for the separatists and Hadi’s government to attend reconciliation talks in Saudi Arabia and Aidarous al-Zubaidi, head of the Southern Transitional Council, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for proposed talks with Hadi’s government, according to a statement from the STC.
The internationally recognized government has said, however, that it would not engage in talks until the STC withdraw its forces from its military camps and institutions.
The fighting in Aden began earlier this month following the funeral of a separatist leader killed in a Houthi rocket attack. At the time, Hani Bin Braik, a separatist leader and former Cabinet minister, called for the overthrow of Hadi’s government.
The crisis has cast doubt on the cohesiveness of the Saudi-led coalition in its war against the Houthis. Yemen’s war has killed tens of thousands of people and has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Tribal leaders, meanwhile, warned that the clashes could pave the way for a comeback of al-Qaeda militants, given that Abyan was a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Islamic militants — AQAP and the Islamic State group’s affiliate — have exploited the chaos of the civil war to carry out bombings, shootings and assassinations in an effort to expand their footprints in Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished country.