World News

Saudi-Backed Coalition in Yemen Upended in Deadly Factional Fighting

Posted January 30, 2018 8:03 p.m. EST

AL MUKALLA, Yemen — A simmering split within the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting rebels in Yemen since 2015 exploded into deadly combat this week, paralyzing the southern city of Aden, the government’s temporary seat of power.

The fighting, which began Sunday, has pit allies armed with heavy weapons against each other and further complicated prospects for a resolution of the war in Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country and home to one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crises.

The coalition includes forces loyal to the Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and a faction supported by the United Arab Emirates, known as the Southern Transitional Council. The council has accused Hadi’s subordinates of corruption and incompetence, and has advocated the revival of a separate state in southern Yemen, which merged with the north in 1990.

Last week, the council gave Hadi an ultimatum to dismiss the Cabinet, and as the deadline neared, the forces of both sides started shooting at each other on Sunday with tanks, artillery and automatic weapons.

The feud has, for the moment, overshadowed the coalition’s common goal of defeating the Houthis, the northern Yemeni rebels supported by Iran who drove Hadi’s government from the capital, Sanaa, in 2015, and still control big regions of the country.

Hadi was not in Aden when the clashes between his loyalists and the Southern Transitional Council separatists began. He was believed to be in Saudi Arabia, where he has spent much of his time for the past three years.

After two days of what witnesses and local news reports called fierce shelling and shooting, Hadi’s forces in Aden crumbled on Tuesday, and the separatists seized the area around the presidential palace where his prime minister and other officials had been staying. Their whereabouts as of Tuesday night were unclear.

The official Saba news agency in Yemen quoted local health officials as saying that as many as 21 people had been killed and 290 wounded since Sunday.

Hani bin Bourek, a senior member of the Southern Transitional Council, said that the separatists had pulled their forces back after mediation by other members of the Saudi-led coalition.

In an interview with France 24’s Arabic-language channel, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the president of the council, said his fighters were still “engaged in a mission with the Saudi-led coalition.”

Whether the council’s rift with Hadi’s forces could be mended was uncertain at best.

Saudi Arabia’s official press agency, quoting a coalition statement, said the coalition had been “watching with regret all over the past two days that all parties have not responded to the calls for calm” and that it had requested “all parties to speed up the cessation of all clashes immediately.”

International aid groups and the United Nations, which have been struggling to deliver emergency aid to Yemeni civilians, appealed for calm in Aden, which had been a relatively stable area until shooting and artillery blasts erupted Sunday.

“The fighting in Aden makes it impossible for us to carry out our lifesaving work,” Tamer Kirolos, the director of Save the Children’s operations in Yemen, said in a statement. “Our staff are forced to shelter at home and in bunkers while gunbattles rage outside.”

A spokesman in New York for the United Nations, Stéphane Dujarric, said the organization’s relief officials were “extremely concerned by the violence that we’ve seen over the last couple of days.”

The lack of any progress on political negotiations, Dujarric said, “only piles onto the misery of the Yemeni people.”

The war has left more than 10,000 people dead, displaced at least 2 million and contributed to an acute hunger crisis that has put much of the population of roughly 27 million close to famine.

Efforts by a succession of U.N. mediators to hold negotiations on the conflict have ended in failure. Less than two weeks ago, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a veteran diplomat from Mauritania, announced he was vacating the mediator post in February.