Yemen separatists surround presidential palace in Aden

Saudi-backed government’s prime minister and senior figures holed up inside

Armed supporters of the separatist Southern Movement patrol a street following clashes in the southern port city of Aden on Sunday. Photograph:  EPA

Armed supporters of the separatist Southern Movement patrol a street following clashes in the southern port city of Aden on Sunday. Photograph: EPA


Fighters from the armed wing of a political movement demanding secession for southern Yemen have surrounded the presidential palace in the government’s de facto capital of Aden after three days of intense fighting.

The prime minister, Ahmed bin Daghr, and a number of senior government figures were holed up in the palace on Tuesday and were preparing to flee to Saudi Arabia, officials said. The Southern Resistance Force (SRF) have also captured the main barracks of troops loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who already resides in Riyadh.

The southern port city of Aden has served as the government’s base since 2014 after the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who hail from northern Yemen, took control of the capital, Sana’a, in their fight against the state.

At least 36 people have been killed and 185 wounded in clashes in Aden since Sunday, when another front was opened in Yemen’s devastating conflict.

“The separatists have surrounded the palace and now control the main gate. Those inside are unofficially under house arrest at this point,” a high-ranking officer with the Yemeni army told Agence France-Presse. Saudi troops who have been guarding the palace for months stopped the separatists at the gate, preventing them from entering, AP reported.

Activists shared photos on social media of the flag of the former independent South Yemen state flying over the army base’s gate. South Yemen was united with North Yemen in 1990.

The SRF, the armed wing of the Southern Transitional Council, has been receiving support from the United Arab Emirates, causing a fracture in the Saudi-UAE alliance that intervened against the Houthis .

Suicide attack

In recent days, leaders in the UAE have in public been calling on the STC to accept a ceasefire, but their plea has fallen on deaf ears. Last week, the STC gave Mr Hadi’s government an ultimatum: either dismiss Mr Daghr and his cabinet or face being overthrown.

The STC accused Mr Hadi’s government of “rampant corruption” resulting in a “deteriorating economic, security and social situation never before witnessed in the history of the south”.

In addition, 14 soldiers were killed on Tuesday in a suicide attack by suspected Islamist extremists in southern Yemen, a senior military official said. The bomb struck a checkpoint manned by UAE-trained special operations forces in Ataq, capital of the oil-rich province of Shabwa. Islamist networks, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State, have exploited the war to expand their presence in southern Yemen.

The hostilities in Aden erupted early on Sunday when pro-government troops prevented STC supporters from entering the city for a rally. Separatists have dispatched additional forces from the central province of Marib and the southern province of Abyan, security sources said.

After the separatists seized the government headquarters on Sunday, Mr Daghr denounced a “coup ... in Aden against legitimacy and the country’s unity”. He urged the Saudi-led coalition to intervene in its defence.

The infighting is a blow to western governments including Britain that have been expending enormous diplomatic energy to try to bring Yemen’s civil war to a close.

The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, held four meetings on the issue last week including visits to Oman, France and Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Al Arabiya, Johnson said no military solution to the conflict was available, but the Saudis had a legitimate right to protect themselves from attack. Riyadh believes Iran is using the Houthis to fire missiles into Saudi Arabia.

British defence officials have been advising the Saudi-led coalition on how to conduct its controversial bombing campaign inside Yemen, although it says it is not involved in targeting decisions.

Economic crisis

The US and the UK are convinced that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been provided with long-range missiles that have been fired at Riyadh, highlighting Yemen’s role in a surrogate war between Iran and the Saudis. Mr Johnson described Iranian conniving with the Houthis as catastrophic.

Britain played a role in securing the removal of the UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, after he appeared to have lost the confidence of the Houthis. Martin Griffiths, a former British diplomat and mediator with specialist Yemen knowledge, is being mentioned as his possible successor.

Despite coming from the south, Mr Hadi has lost much of his support to the STC amid Yemen’s economic crisis. Although some observers believe the UAE’s public statements on Yemen are at odds with its private funding of the secessionists, the UAE prizes its alliance with Saudi Arabia, and would not want a schism over Yemen to destroy the key Gulf political axis aimed at holding back Iran.

Yemen’s war has claimed more than 9,200 lives since Saudi Arabia and its military allies joined the conflict in March 2015, triggering what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis . – Guardian