Yemen govt blames UAE for air raids as ‘total chaos’ engulfs Aden

Yemen’s internationally recognised government has accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of launching air raids that killed dozens of its troops heading to Aden, amid intense clashes for the control of the key port city.

Separatist UAE-trained fighters flash the victory sign at the eastern entrance to the key city of Aden on Thursday Nabil Hasan/AFP

The fighting in recent weeks between President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the separatist Southern Transitional Council’s (STC) forces has opened a new front in the complex war in the Arab world’s most impoverished country. The two sides are nominal allies in a Saudi-UAE-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels who control the country’s north.

Colonel Mohamed al-Oban, a Yemeni commander of the special forces in Abyan province, said his soldiers were on their way to Aden on Thursday when the air raids took place.

A Yemeni official said over 30 soldiers were killed by air strikes on the eastern outskirts.

Al-Oban did not say who was behind the air attacks, but the government blamed the UAE, which has trained and supported the separatists.

“The Yemeni government condemns the Emirati air strikes against government forces in the interim capital Aden and in Zinjibar, which resulted in civilian and military casualties,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami said in a tweet.

“We hold the UAE fully responsible for this explicit extrajudicial targeting.”

There was no immediate comment by the UAE, but the air raids appeared to assist the separatists a day after Hadi’s government claimed it had seized Aden back, some three weeks after being captured by the STC’s forces.

On Thursday, the STC said some of its troops positioned on the outskirts of the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, which is under Houthi control, had returned to Aden to join the battle against Hadi’s forces.

“To whoever said the Southern Resistance has fled, I say: We are here,” Hani Ben Brik, STC’s vice-president, said in social media posts showing himself and other southern leaders touring the streets of the city, including the airport. He warned fleeing government loyalists of punishment after their brief takeover the previous day.

Separatist forces “completely took control the city of Aden along with its entrances”, Haitham Nezar, a spokesman for the STC, told AFP news agency on Thursday, adding that separatist forces were now setting their sights on Abyan and Shabwa provinces, which were retaken by government troops earlier this week.

A government security source also told AFP that Aden was now under the control of the STC, saying pro-Hadi troops soldiers who had entered parts of the city on Wednesday “withdrew from Aden” to nearby Abyan province.

‘Fragile situation’

There were sporadic clashes across Aden on Thursday with gunmen on both sides patrolling deserted streets, residents told Reuters news agency. Shops, restaurants and businesses were closed.

The aid charity Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, said it had taken in 51 casualties during heavy fighting in Aden on Wednesday, 10 of them already dead when they reached its hospital.

“It’s total chaos here. There was fighting in the city all day yesterday. Things appear to have calmed down a bit this morning, but we expect the hostilities to resume at any point,” MSF programme manager Caroline Seguin said in a statement.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yemen said 13 people were killed and at least 70 wounded over the past two days in Aden and Abyan.

“We mourn for the dead and wounded and plead with everyone who is fighting to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Lise Grande, Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.

“The situation is very fragile. Families are again trapped in their homes by fighting, unable to secure food and reach medical care,” said Grande, adding that “the timing couldn’t be worse”.

Alliance rift?

The fighting has raised further concerns the famine-threatened country could break apart entirely, exacerbating a dire situation in a long-running conflict that been described by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

It also reflects a rift within a pro-government coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE fighting Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, in the north.

The government and the STC are nominal allies in the Saudi-UAE-led coalition fighting against the Houthis, but the STC’s ultimate goal is for the south secede from Yemen.

South Yemen was a separate state until it merged with the north in 1990. Four years later, an armed secession bid failed to reverse the reunification.

The UAE seems to have been “planning this for quite some time” pursuing its own foreign policy in the war-ravaged country, Sami Hamdi, of the UK-based media group International Interest, told Al Jazeera

Fluid situation

On Wednesday, Hadi’s government claimed it had seized Aden back from the separatists, who captured the strategic city on August 10 after four days of fierce battles that killed at least 40 people, according to the UN.

The separatists turned on the government after accusing a party allied to Hadi of being complicit in a Houthi attack on southern forces.

A Yemeni official said Saudi Arabia and the UAE had made contact with both sides to try to defuse the conflict but more fighters were seen arriving in Aden and the other southern provinces of Shabwa, Lahej and Abyan.

“The coalition remains committed to supporting reforms in the legitimate government, tackling corruption, encouraging inclusiveness towards to all Yemeni factions, in order to ensure representation of all Yemenis in the future of the country,” said UAE National Media Council director Jaber Al Lamki.

The developments underlined the fluidity of the situation, and a Yemeni journalist in Aden, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said clashes between government forces and the STC were continuing.

“It is a matter of time before the government forces take control over all of Aden,” he said.

Doha-based Yemeni political analyst Saeed Thabit also told Al Jazeera fighting between government forces and the southern separatists was not over.

“No party at this point has a decisive victory over the other,” he said.

Thabit said both sides were mobilising forces and bringing in heavy weapons for the fight to control the key port city.

“The battle for Aden is complicated as the battle lines are shifting back and forth by the hour,” he said.

Thabit said while government forces took control of parts of Aden, other areas such as Buraiqah – where the coalition has a military base – Muaala and Tawahi were still under the control of the UAE and its allied fighters.

‘Secessionist stronghold’

Catherine Shakdam, head of the Yemen department at London-based think-tank Next Century Foundation, told Al Jazeera the separatists will remain in control of Aden because of Hadi’s weak government.

“I think, realistically, that it is very likely that the secessionists will remain in control of the seaport of Aden. It is after all a stronghold of the secessionist movement, and has been for many decades now.”

Shakdam said the feeble government and the advancement of Houthi rebels emboldened the separatists who realise it “is an opportunity they cannot miss”.

She said the situation was complicated for the Saudis and the UAE but also for the Houthis, who previously supported a partition of the country but “no longer believe there should be two Yemens”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meeting in Washington with Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, called for a negotiated resolution.

Pompeo and the prince “agreed that dialogue represents the only way to achieve a stable, unified and prosperous Yemen,” the State Department said in a statement.

The meeting came after The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, said US President Donald Trump’s administration was pursuing secret talks with the Houthis in hopes of winding down the devastating five-year war.

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