Separatists in southern Yemen have taken control of all government military camps in Aden, officials said, as fighting continued for a fourth day between the nominal allies who have turned on each other.
As battles resumed at dawn on Saturday, the separatist Security Belt forces, who are backed by the United Arab Emirates, took control of all military camps belonging to Yemen’s internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a government official told Reuters News Agency.
The clashes initially centred on the all-but-empty presidential palace in the predominantly residential Crater district, near Aden International Airport and in a neighbourhood where Interior Minister Ahmed al-Mayssari lives, residents said.
The separatists also took over his house, which he had already vacated, officials said.
An AFP correspondent reported seeing separatist fighters surrounding a tank which they claimed they had seized from a military position.
The violence in the seat of Yemen’s internationally-recognised government threatens to open a new front in the country’s devastating war, exposing a rift in a Saudi-led military alliance that has been battling the Houthi rebel movement since 2015.
The Houthis control large parts of northern and western Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.
Much of the fighting in the south between forces loyal to Hadi and the UAE-backed militia has been taking place in areas that are among the city’s most populated, leading to serious concerns for the safety of civilians.
Fighting intensified on Wednesday after two members of the Security Belt were killed in clashes with other loyalist forces following the funeral of police personnel killed in the city last week, according to security officials.
A missile and drone attack claimed by the Houthi rebels on a Security Belt training camp just outside Aden last week killed 49 people.
Since then, the United Nations has reiterated its concern over the escalation.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said the battles had trapped civilians in their homes with dwindling supplies of food and water.
The aid group said prolonged fighting in Aden, a gateway for commercial and aid supplies, could impact efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis gripping the rest of the country.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Atta, reporting from Sanaa, said the recent pull out of UAE forces from Aden “encouraged [separatists] to take over the city”.
The UAE began withdrawing several thousand troops from Yemen last month in a move that weakened the Saudi-led coalition, signalling differences between the two close allies over how far to pursue the war against the Houthis.
The UAE will still have an estimated 90,000 allied fighters in the coalition-held south, ensuring its continued influence and potentially posing a threat to the Saudi-backed government.
“What also encouraged them was the Houthi attack on the military parade last week – they viewed the attack with suspicion as though there are many parties involved seeking to destroy and weaken their forces,” Atta said.
“Today, they have achieved many of their goals [by taking over all of the camps],” he added.
Southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990 and the north is widely perceived to have imposed unification by force.
The Security Belt is a force trained by the UAE, a key partner in a Saudi-led military coalition which intervened in Yemen more than four years ago to prop up Hadi’s government in the face of an uprising by the Houthi rebels, who control large parts of northern and western Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.
On Thursday, Hadi’s government urged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to put pressure on the Security Belt, who work alongside the so-called “Southern Transitional Council”, 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”.
“Sheikh Abdullah called for a responsible and serious dialogue to end the differences and work on unity in this delicate phase 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 Houthis not each other.
Sheikh Abdullah also called on the UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths “to make all possible efforts to end the escalation in Aden”, the statement added.
Since the war in Yemen erupted in 2014, tens of thousands of civilians and combatants have been killed and as many as 85,000 children may have starved to death.