Southern separatists overrun barracks in Yemen's Aden

Aden (AFP) –


Southern separatists gained ground across Yemen's second city Aden on Saturday and surrounded the presidential palace amid fierce battles with loyalist forces, military and security sources said.

The deadly fighting reflects deep divisions between secessionists and forces backing the internationally recognised government of President Abderabbo Mansour Hadi, experts say.

The clashes have been raging since Wednesday, pitting unionist fighters against a force which is dominated by combatants seeking renewed independence for the south.

The force, known as the Security Belt, overran three military barracks belonging to unionist forces on Saturday and were surrounding the presidential palace, sources close to the force said.

Fierce clashes were also taking place in several other parts of the city.

An AFP correspondent reported seeing separatist fighters surrounding a tank which they claimed they had seized after overrunning a presidential guard base.

Southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990 and the north is widely perceived to have imposed unification by force.

The latest clashes "threaten to tip southern Yemen into a civil war within a civil war," the International Crisis Group think tank warned.

"Such a conflict would deepen what is already the world's worst humanitarian crisis and make a national political settlement harder to achieve," it said.

- 'Robust intervention needed' -

Ties between the Security Belt and Hadi loyalists have been strained for years, and this week was not the first time they have engaged in armed clashes.

In January 2018, they fought three days of battles that killed 38 people and wounded 222 others after the government prevented a rally by separatists.

The Security Belt has accused Hadi's backers of allowing Islamists into their ranks and of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

"In the past, half-measures helped de-escalate simmering tensions in the south," Crisis Group said.

But "today's circumstances require robust diplomatic intervention from the UN, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to avoid the worst and help forge a durable solution."

The Security Belt was trained by the United Arab Emirates, a key partner in a Saudi-led military coalition which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to back the government against Shiite Huthi rebels.

The Huthis had overrun large parts of northern and western Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, which they still control.

On Thursday, Hadi's government urged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to put pressure on the Security Belt to avoid a military escalation in Aden.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan expressed "deep concern" on Saturday over the violence in Aden and called for a "de-escalation".

He "called for a responsible and serious dialogue to end the differences... while maintaining security and stability," the official Emirati news agency WAM reported.

He said the UAE was "exerting all efforts to calm and de-escalate the situation in Aden", saying the two camps should focus their efforts on fighting the Huthis instead of each other.

Sheikh Abdullah also called on the UN's Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths "to make all possible efforts to end the escalation in Aden".

- 'Attacks on civilians' -

The latest fighting flared on Wednesday during the funeral of a senior Security Belt commander killed earlier this month in a drone and missile attack on a training camp west of Aden.

The commander was among 36 people killed -- many of them newly graduated cadets -- in the aerial attack, claimed by the Huthis.

But the separatist Southern Transitional Council accused the Islamist Al-Islah party of having killed the commander.

The UN human rights office later accused the Security Belt force of "reportedly carrying out and enabling retaliatory attacks against civilians" from northern Yemen.

Griffiths wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he was "alarmed by the military escalations in Aden".

The fighting has left at least 18 dead and scores wounded, medics and security sources have said.

On Friday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) tweeted that it had treated 75 people in one of its hospitals in Aden since Thursday night.

Since 2015, between the Huthis and Yemeni loyalists backed by the Saudi-led coalition has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, aid agencies say.

The conflict has also forced some 3.3 million people from their homes, according to the UN.

It says over 24 million people, some 80 percent of the population, need humanitarian aid.