(Bloomberg) -- Clashes erupted between forces loyal to Yemen’s elected government and secessionists in the south, exacerbating the divisions splintering a country already devastated by a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The fighting in the southern port city of Aden broke out Sunday after secessionists gathered to rally against the Saudi Arabia-backed government, which had banned such protests as compromising the country’s stability and security. Presidential guards were deployed across the city and blocked all roads leading to the presidential palace. No official casualty figures were released.
The Southern Transitional Council’s desire to break away from Yemen threatens to set back the Saudi-led coalition’s war effort against Shiite Houthi rebels. Fighting in the south would open a second front in the three-year-old conflict that shows no signs of ending. It could also make it more difficult to distribute desperately needed humanitarian supplies across the impoverished country, where thousands have been killed and displaced by the fighting.
“The Houthis throughout the war have benefited from the fragmentation and competing agendas of the anti-Houthi forces and their coalition backers,” said Graham Griffiths, an analyst at the Control Risks consultancy in Dubai.
The Aden Alghad newspaper reported that at least 12 people were killed in the fighting.
The Saudi-led coalition has been unable to exert its authority over the entire country since intervening in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Sunni Saudi Arabia has accused Shiite Iran of arming the Houthi rebels in one of their multiple proxy wars in the region. Missiles fired at Saudi Arabia’s international airport and royal palace in the capital, Riyadh, in recent months have raised fears of a direct military confrontation.
Southern resistance groups played an important role in driving the Houthis from Aden when coalition forces captured the city in 2015. It was the first real victory for the Saudi-led forces, achieved after a four-month bombing campaign and deployment of ground troops. Aden was the capital of a separate state of South Yemen before unification with the north in 1990, and separatist sentiments there have been fanned by the widespread sense that they’ve been dominated and repressed by the government in the north.
A week ago, the separatists presented Hadi with an ultimatum: dismiss his government, which they accuse of rampant corruption, or have it toppled. Hadi rejected their demand.
The division among Yemenis is “directly serving the Houthis and Iran,” said Ahmed bin Daghr, the prime minister of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. He called on all coalition members to resolve the crisis in Aden, “which is inching towards overall military confrontation. It’s an essential condition to saving Yemen from division.’’
The separatists are supported by the United Arab Emirates, which is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis to restore Hadi to power. While tacitly aligning itself with secessionist forces in its quest for partners in Yemen, the U.A.E. has been ambiguous about whether it supports the secessionists’ political aims, Griffiths said.
“In the short term a lot of the clashes are about control of specific areas and resources,’’ he said. “But the fundamental clash is really over the council’s rejection of Hadi’s authority and the desire to ultimately secede.’’
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