Clashes between southern separatists and presidential guards in Aden, the seat of Yemen‘s internationally recognised government, have killed at least one person and badly wounded two others, according to local officials and witnesses.
The violence, which prompted a United Nations call for de-escalation, highlighted a rift within the Saudi-UAE-led coalition battling the Houthi rebel movement since 2015.
The UAE-backed separatists and the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are nominally united in their battle against the Houthis, but they have rival agendas for Yemen’s future.
Relations between Hadi and the United Arab Emirates have been tense amid allegations the Emiratis have offered patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession, as well as what Hadi perceives as UAE violations of his country’s sovereignty.
A Houthi missile attack in Aden last week that killed dozens of southern soldiers heightened tensions further between them.
Just before Wednesday’s incident, hundreds of separatist supporters attended a funeral for some of the southern soldiers and a prominent commander near the hilltop presidential palace.
As the crowd chanted anti-government slogans, shooting was exchanged with presidential guards. The identities of the one dead and two wounded people were not immediately known.
Officials and witnesses said the clashes left one presidential guard dead and wounded at least two civilians, according to The Associated Press news agency. A security official was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency that two members of the UAE-backed force were killed in the clashes with pro-government fighters.
After the funeral, the vice-president of the separatist Southern Transitional Council, Hani Ali Brik, called on supporters to march on the palace and overthrow the government, but there was no sign such a march had begun.
Yemen’s Interior Minister Ahmed al-Mayssari said the government had so far practised restraint to maintain stability in Aden, but it was “fully ready” to combat any actions targeting the state’s institutions.
“We call on the Yemeni people not to respond to such calls as they only aim for war and only serve the Houthis,” Maysarri said.
The United Nations’ special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, expressed concern about the flare-up in Aden.
“I am alarmed by the military escalations in Aden today, including reports of clashes in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace. I am also deeply concerned by the recent rhetoric encouraging violence against Yemeni institutions,” he said in a statement.
“Escalations of violence will contribute to instability and suffering in Aden and will deepen Yemen’s political and social divisions,” the statement read.
“I call on the parties involved to abandon violence and engage in dialogue to resolve differences. I also urge all those with influence to de-escalate the situation and ensure the protection of civilians.”
Meanwhile, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’ state minister for foreign affairs, called for calm after the violence, which he described in a Twitter post as worrying.
He also said that escalation between the two sides “cannot be an acceptable option”, especially after a suicide bombing last week – on the same day as the missile attack – by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group in Aden that killed 11 people.
The southern port city of Aden is the temporary home of Hadi’s government, though he is in Saudi Arabia and the presidential palace is largely empty apart from soldiers.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Attab – reporting from the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, further north – said the situation in Aden was “chaotic”, especially after the missile attack on the parade.
“As escalation continues, there are also reports about many casualties and people killed during these fierce confrontations,” he said.
According to al-Attab, there has also been a campaign of arrest against those who come from the north of the country.
Fighter jets were seen on Wednesday flying over Aden, where rivalries have brought violence in the past, too.
In January 2018, southern forces took control after two days of fighting, confining Hadi’s government to the presidential palace.