More than a dozen people have reportedly been killed as fighting between pro-government forces and southern separatists in Yemen’s Abyan province entered a sixth consecutive day.
“Fourteen fighters, including 10 pro-government soldiers, were killed on Saturday,” a government military official told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
The toll was confirmed by a separatist military source, who also claimed the capture of “40 pro-government soldiers and the seizure of military equipment”.
“They [pro-government soldiers] were unable to advance towards Zinjibar and they will only get there over our dead bodies,” a separatist commander on the front line told AFP.
The forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) are resisting an offensive by pro-government troops on the outskirts of Zinjibar, some 60km (35 miles) from the main southern city of Aden.
Sources said the confrontations, in which the two sides exchanged missile and artillery shelling, were taking place in two fronts – including the village of Sheikh Salem and al-Tariya, an area northeast of Zinjibar.
Witnesses in the city said military reinforcements – including armoured vehicles loaded with weaponry – had reached STC forces, while similar reinforcements were delivered to pro-government forces from Shabwa province, in eastern Yemen.
The fighting is the first major confrontation since the separatists on April 26 declared self-rule in southern Yemen, including Aden, accusing the government of failing to carry out its duties and of “conspiring” against their cause.
Aden has been the interim seat of the internationally-recognised government after the Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.
At least 10 fighters were killed and many were wounded on both sides in the fighting on Monday.
The division between the two supposed allies adds another complex layer to the country’s long-running war.
On one side are the separatists and on the other are forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Both have fought together against the Houthis as part of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore Hadi’s government.
But the separatists, who sought self-rule in the south, turned on the government in August last year and seized Aden. The fighting stopped when the two groups reached a deal in Riyadh last November.
Under the accord, the STC and other regions in the south were supposed to join a new national cabinet and place all forces under the control of Hadi’s internationally-recognised government.
Yemen’s multi-faceted conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and triggered what the United Nations considers to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.