CAIRO — After two days of clashes, the strategic Yemeni port city of Aden appeared to be under the control of southern separatists Tuesday, splintering the Saudi-backed coalition fighting Iranian-backed rebels for control of the Middle East’s poorest country.
By Tuesday afternoon, the separatists had seized the area around the presidential palace, home to the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Some news reports suggested that the country’s prime minister was preparing to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia to join Hadi, who is based in the kingdom.
The infighting is the latest twist in a three-year-long civil conflict that has pitted the northern Houthi rebels, backed by Tehran, against the Hadi government, backed by a coalition of regional powers. That coalition appears to be fraying as the southern Yemeni separatists, supported by United Arab Emirates, rose up Sunday against former allies loyal to Hadi, who is aligned with Saudi Arabia.
The separatists, known as the Southern Transitional Council, are seeking the revival of the independent state of South Yemen, which existed before Yemen was unified in 1990. Residents told Reuters on Tuesday that separatists had seized the last stronghold of Hadi’s presidential protective force, engaging in battles using tanks and artillery.
On social media, Aden residents were posting pictures of the South Yemeni flag flying over a base operated by Hadi’s allies. Crowds danced and sang in celebration as fireworks lit the night skies, and some chanted slogans calling for the restoration of the southern state, according to Reuters.
For weeks, the separatists had urged Hadi to dismiss the government run by Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr, accusing it of corruption and mismanagement. On Sunday, after a deadline passed, fighting erupted. The official Saba news agency placed the death toll at 16, with more than 140 wounded, but the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that at least 36 had died and that 185 were wounded.
By Tuesday evening, Daghr and other government officials were reportedly in talks to leave Aden safely. But a government source told Reuters that the prime minister had no intention of leaving the city.
It is unclear whether the separatists would continue the campaign to drive the Houthi rebels from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and other areas the Houthis control in northern Yemen. The leader of the separatists, Aydaroos al-Zubaydi, told France 24 TV’s Arabic channel that the separatists had “tasks alongside the Arab coalition,” but he also stressed that they would focus on creating a new southern state.
“The people of the South have the right to their own state when the international community is ready for that,” Zubaydi said.
On Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition urged both sides to stop fighting and warned that “the coalition will take all the measures it deems necessary to restore stability and security in Aden.”
The clashes in Aden intensify the turmoil and despair in a conflict that has deepened what aid agencies say is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than 10,000 civilians have died, mostly in coalition airstrikes. Millions more are suffering from hunger, cholera and other woes.