Forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government pushed Wednesday into the key port city of Aden after wresting control of another southern provincial capital from separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates, officials and local residents said.
The government troops also retook the international airport in Aden, a main hub for this part of the country, the country’s information minister said. Many predicted the city of Aden would fall back into government hands within hours.
The rapid advance by government forces underscored the seesaw nature of the fighting between the two ostensible allies in the conflict. Only weeks before, the separatists had gained much territory in southern Yemen, pushing government forces out of strategic cities and areas. The fighting between the two sides has added another layer to the complex civil war in the Arab world’s most impoverished country, a war pitting a Saudi-led coalition backing the government against the Houthi rebels who control the country’s north.
Earlier in the day, the government forces pushed the UAE-backed separatist militia, known as the Security Belt, out of the city of Zinjibar, the capital of southern Abyan province, following clashes that left at least one dead and 30 wounded fighters. The separatists had seized Zinjibar earlier this month.
Retreating from Zinjibar, the separatist fled to nearby Aden province, which they had taken from forces of Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi earlier this month, the officials said.
Government forces then continued their push to retake the city of Aden, which has functioned as the seat of Hadi’s government since the Iran-backed Houthi rebels captured Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and much of the north in 2014.
Hadi’s forces first reclaimed the eastern district of Khor Maksar, and then moved to the neighborhood of Crater in Aden where the presidential palace is located, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the fighting with reporters, while the residents spoke anonymously fearing reprisals.
Saudi Arabia and Emirati forces have guarded the palace since the separatists pushed the presidential guards out of the city.
Information Minister Moammar al-Iryani said government forces also reclaimed Aden’s airport. “National army forces entered Aden airport and have taken full control of the main gate of the airport amid public celebration and joy,” he tweeted.
“The return of the state to Aden is a victory for the people,” said Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, Yemen’s prime minister.
Hadi’s supporters were seen in videos online dancing in the streets of Zinjibar and Aden, and welcoming government forces.
Local residents said the UAE-backed separatists fled to nearby Lahij and Dhale provinces.
The latest push by Hadi’s government came days after the Saudi-led coalition called for cease-fire and invited both sides to reconciliation talks in Saudi Arabia. The coalition also urged the separatists to withdraw from all government buildings and military bases.
The government said it would not engage in talks before the separatists’ pulled out while government supporters demanded the UAE withdraw from the Saudi-led coalition. The calls prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to issue a joint statement, pledging to keep up their floundering coalition and focus on the war against the Houthis.
The fighting between Hadi’s forces and the UAE-backed militias erupted earlier this month amid urgings by the separatist Southern Transitional Council for the militias to “topple” Hadi’s government. The UAE is a key member of a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis since March 2015 on behalf of Hadi’s government.
But despite having a common enemy, relations between them have been tense amid allegations the Emiratis have offered patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession as well as what Hadi perceives as UAE violations of his country’s sovereignty. Yemen was split into two countries during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1990.
The fighting came weeks after the UAE pulled an unspecified number of troops from Yemen. Yemeni officials have suggested Emirati troop strength dropped by as much as 75% out of around 10,000 troops.
The Emirati withdrawal followed rising tensions between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran’s collapsing nuclear deal with world powers, suggesting Abu Dhabi worried about having forces at home in case an armed conflict broke out.
Magdy reported from Cairo.