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Yemeni officials said the UAE-backed fighters had withdrawn from the streets but still held military positions seized in recent days, and were still stationed outside the presidential palace.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.
Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a non-profit research institute, said the situation for the Saudi-led coalition was “very fluid.” He told The Associated Press that Saudi Arabia was currently trying to “save face and work out if there is a deal to be done” between the UAE-backed southern separatists and the government.
The United Arab Emirates and its allies view President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government as being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional Islamist movement that the Gulf monarchies view as a threat.
The current crisis began last week during the funeral of a separatist leader killed in a Houthi rocket attack who was laid to rest by supporters in a cemetery near the presidential palace. Supporters attacked the palace, and Hani Bin Braik, a separatist leader and former Cabinet minister, called for the overthrow of the government.
Bin Braik tweeted Sunday that the Southern Transitional Council would not “negotiate under duress.” He said his group accepts Hadi as president and is committed to the coalition but wants his Cabinet replaced. The government has said it will not negotiate with the separatists until they hand over all the military positions they seized.
The southern separatists advocate secession and the division of Yemen into two countries, in the north and south, as it was during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1994.
Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maisar, while awaiting evacuation to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, acknowledged that the government forces had been defeated, and criticized Saudi Arabia and Hadi for remaining silent during the four days of fighting. In the video statement released Sunday, he said over 400 vehicles supplied by the UAE had been deployed in Aden and accused the UAE-backed separatists of looting government properties.
Hadi has already been based in Saudi Arabia for five years.
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 rebel-run health ministry claimed an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition killed at least nine people and wounded at least 18 in the northern Hajjah province.
A spokesman for the coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.