Yemeni authorities declared Aden, interim seat of the Saudi-backed government, an “infested” city on Monday after the number of coronavirus cases there jumped and clashes erupted elsewhere in the south between separatists and government forces.
A five-year war has shattered Yemen’s health system, pushed millions to the brink of famine and divided the country between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi group that removed it from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said there is a full-blown transmission of the virus in Yemen, with the disease spreading undetected among a population with some of the lowest levels of immunity to disease compared with other states.
Testing capabilities are inadequate, but the WHO has also urged local authorities to transparently report confirmed cases.
The Aden-based government’s coronavirus committee on Monday reported five new cases, with one death, in Hadramut province, taking the total count in areas under the Saudi-backed government’s control to 56 with nine deaths.
It had late on Sunday announced 17 new COVID-19 cases, 10 of them in Aden, where the total count so far stands at 35 infections, with four deaths.
The Houthi movement, which controls Sanaa and most large urban centres, has reported two cases, with one death. The Aden-based government has accused Houthi authorities of covering up an outbreak in Sanaa, an accusation which they have denied.
The committee said Aden had been declared an “infested city” because of the spread of the coronavirus and other diseases already rife in Yemen after recent flooding. It said movement from Aden to other regions was barred, except for the transport of goods.
“The administrative and political situation in Aden is also hampering efforts to combat the coronavirus and this should be remedied so relevant entities can carry out their duties,” the committee said on its Twitter account.
The separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) on April 25 declared self-rule in Aden and other southern regions, threatening to renew their conflict with the Saudi-backed government in Yemen’s multifaceted war.
The STC and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are both part of the anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia, but they clashed last year until Riyadh brokered a deal in November.
Fighting broke out on Monday between pro-government troops and separatists in southern Yemen, leaving 10 dead, security and medical officials said, in the first significant clash since separatists declared self-rule in the south.
The two sides fought for control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, the STC said.
Pro-government troops launched an offensive on the outskirts of Zinjibar, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) from the main southern city of Aden, security sources from both sides told the AFP news agency.
An STC official, Nabil al-Hanachi, told AFP that his forces managed to “stop the attack and kill many of them”.
He said the attack was carried out by the military wing of the Islamist party Al-Islah, which is allied with the government.
Medical sources told AFP that two government soldiers were killed and 13 wounded, while the separatists had two dead and 11 wounded. The casualties were transported to local hospitals.
Concern over refugees, migrants
The Western-backed coalition intervened in March 2015 to restore Hadi’s government to power in Sanaa, but the conflict has been in deadlock for years.
More than 100,000 have been killed since 2015 and some 80 percent of the population, or 24 million people, rely on aid while approximately 10 million face hunger.
The coalition on April 24 extended by one month a nationwide ceasefire prompted by the coronavirus outbreak as the United Nations seeks to hold virtual talks to agree upon a permanent truce, coordinate coronavirus efforts and restart peace talks.
The Houthis, who say they are fighting a corrupt system, have not formally accepted the truce although violence has abated.
The WHO late on Saturday ordered a pause in staff activity in main Houthi-held areas, citing “credible threats” to staff, but reversed the directive on Sunday, according to a document seen by Reuters News Agency and confirmed by the organisation.
The suspension was prompted by accusations from Houthi officials that the first coronavirus case announced in Sanaa, a Somali man found dead in a hotel, was brought to the capital by the WHO. A Houthi official on Sunday tweeted a retraction.
The United Nations on Sunday voiced concern that migrants were being stigmatised as “transmitters of disease”, saying in a statement that some have been forced to move to frontlines and desert areas with no essential services.
Yemen has long been a transit point for migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa trying to reach Gulf states.