Yemeni separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates clashed Wednesday with forces loyal to the internationally backed government near the presidential palace in the southern city of Aden, security officials and witnesses said.
The UAE is a key member of a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling rebels in northern Yemen, known as Houthis, since March 2015 on behalf of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government.
But despite having a common enemy, relations between Hadi and the UAE have been tense amid allegations the Emiratis have offered patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession as well as what the president perceives as UAE violations of his country’s sovereignty.
The fighting Wednesday came amid urgings by ex-Cabinet minister Hani Bin Braik, who serves as deputy head of the so-called Southern Transitional Council, to “topple” Hadi’s government. The council later supported Braik’s call.
Braik accused Hadi and his forces of being members of or loyal to the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab political movement that the UAE and some other Arab countries view as a terrorist organization.
The council, led by Aidarous al-Zubaidi, a former Aden governor, was formed after thousands of pro-secessionist Yemenis rallied behind him over the past two years. But the formation of the council is seen by Hadi’s government as an act that “targets the country’s interests, its future and social fabric.”
The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, voiced his concern over the violence in Aden and urged all parties to abandon violence and resolve their differences through dialogue.
Col. Turki al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, was quoted in the state-run Saudi Press Agency as saying that the coalition “defiantly rejects such serious development” in Aden. He called on all parties to work with Hadi’s government to “overcome the critical period.”
Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said that the clashes were alarming and that escalation can’t be an option after last week’s suicide attack by the Islamic State group in Aden that killed 11 people.
Officials and witnesses said the clashes killed one presidential guard and wounded at least four people, including two civilians. Hadi’s prime minister and several Cabinet members and high-ranking officials left the presidential palace over the past two days to other areas in the city, they said.
A video circulated online showed presidential guards apparently protecting the palace.
“The presidential palace is OK. All matters are OK. Nobody got past the gate. They did not advance,” an armed man says in the video.
A top government official described Braik’s calls as an attempted coup backed by the UAE.
“This is a coup by armed militias, clearly backed by the Emiratis. This is not different from the Houthi coup in Sanaa,” he said. He was referring to the Houthi takeover of the capital in 2013, ushering in the civil war.
Another video showed a man with an AK-47 assault rifle opening fire while standing at the top of a hill overlooking a funeral possession of a militia leader killed in a Houthi attack last week. Government officials claimed there was a militia plan in place to use the funeral as a cover for their “coup.”
The officials said the clashes subsided after Saudi Arabia intervened to calm tensions between both sides. Yemeni officials said armed Saudi troops with armored vehicles arrived in Aden to take part in guarding the presidential palace and prevent further clashes.
More troops from the presidential guards were deployed in the district of Crater where the presidential palace is located, the officials said, as forces of the so-called Southern Transitional Council gathered in the district of Khor Maksar. Both districts are in Aden.
The officials demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief the media, while the witnesses who commented feared reprisal.
The clashes come a week after a Houthi missile attack killed a top UAE-backed militia commander, Monier al Yafie, also known by his nickname Aboul Yamama, whose supporters were rallying in Crater to bury his body.
Last week, the Houthis said they fired a ballistic missile at a military parade of the same UAE-trained militia known as the Security Belt, killing at least 40 troops.
The clashes also came several weeks after the UAE said it has begun to draw down its forces, pulling out several thousand troops from Yemen, signaling a major shift in the war.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Houthis, who drove out the internationally recognized government. In March 2015, the coalition launched its air campaign to prevent the rebels from overrunning the south.
Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and weddings, killing thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have used drones and missiles to attack neighboring Saudi Arabia and have also targeted vessels in the Red Sea.
Iran has repeatedly denied supplying the Houthis with drone or missile technology, both of which the rebels have increasingly used, including to target Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has claimed that Iran supplied the missiles or at least helped the Houthis manufacture them from parts that were in Yemen before the war.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj reported this story in Sanaa and AP writer Samy Magdy reported from Cairo. AP writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.