STC drives out Yemeni troops from southern camps
ADEN - Yemen's Southern Transitional Council (STC) drove government troops out of two military camps near the southern port of Aden early on Tuesday, after clashes between nominal allies that have complicated UN peace efforts, residents and officials said.
Fighters of the Security Belt Forces (SBF), the military wing of the STC which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, surrounded two government military bases in Yemen's south and demanded elements inside surrender, sources on both sides said Tuesday, ten days after the southerners seized Yemen's de facto capital Aden.
Yemeni Information Minister Moammer al-Eryani said earlier in the day that a special forces camp in Zinjibar had been surrounded.
"The Security Belt Forces... are demanding the (government) troops surrender or they will storm the camp," he said.
STC spokesman Nizar Haitham confirmed that the SBF are "pursuing (agents) working to destabilise security and stability and hiding in the camps belonging to the legitimate government."
The flare-up in Abyan province comes after the STC partially withdrew from key sites it occupied in Aden, and the Saudi-led military coalition - which backs the government - said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had "succeeded in calming the situation".
But on Tuesday fighters from the SBF initially surrounded the base in Zinjibar - the capital of Abyan about 60 kilometres from Aden - and a nearby military camp at Al-Kawd, Abyan governor Abu Bakr Hussein said.
He said the SBF then seized the Al-Kawd camp in fierce clashes, forcing out the 350 troops there, and that they remained positioned around the Zinjibar base following the exit of government forces in a deal mediated by local authorities.
At least four military personnel - two SBF fighters and two government troops - were killed and 23 wounded, said Hussein, adding that 1,100 troops had been stationed in Zinjibar.
Security officials said that the ten-hour battle also claimed the lives of three civilians and wounded nine.
Mohammed al-Markhi, a commander in the SBF, told AFP news agency "we are controlling both camps now." Residents in Zinjibar, meanwhile, said SBF troops were deployed in the capital's streets.
The STC and the government are both part of a Saudi-led military coalition battling the Iran-aligned Huthi movement, which took over the capital Sanaa and most major cities in 2014.
But the STC broke with the government this month, seizing its temporary base of Aden on August 10. They agreed to a withdrawal under pressure by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but retained control of key military sites.
The Saudi-led military coalition sent a delegation to meet with the Hadi government in Aden - where it has been based since the Huthis took over Sanaa - on Thursday to discuss the new front in the country's crisis.
Yemen's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami said the latest flare-up will undermine peace talks.
"What Abyan governorate is witnessing is an unjustified escalation by the STC," he tweeted on Tuesday. "It is something that is rejected and unacceptable and will undermine mediation efforts by Saudi Arabia."
"We reject the continued provision of financial and military support by the UAE to outlawed STC forces in Yemen," he added.
Saudi Arabia, which wants the coalition to focus on combating the Huthi movement along its border, has called for a summit to resolve the Aden standoff, but the refusal of southern forces to hand back full control of Aden has delayed it.
The STC seizure of two more government bases in Abyan province, the birthplace of Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, suggested they were not planning to back down.
The war has revived old strains between north and south Yemen - formerly separate countries that united into a single state in 1990 under then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Four years later, an armed secession bid ended in occupation by northern forces, giving rise to resentments which persist to this day.
Stalemate with Islamists
The split has exposed differences between Saudi Arabia and its major coalition partner, the UAE, which funds and arms the southern fighters.
The STC turned against the government and seized Aden after accusing the Islamist Islah party, allied to Hadi, of being complicit in a Huthi missile attack on southern forces.
The UAE is suspicious of Islah, which it regards as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia has tolerated it because it props up Hadi's government.
In an interview with pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, STC spokesman Haitham said the group was open to dialogue but ruled out any withdrawal from the military posts in Aden.
"There will be no dialogue if we were to hand over all the positions... what will there be left to negotiate," he said in remarks published on Tuesday.
Meanwhile on another front in the north, the Iran-backed Huthi rebels have stepped up cross-border missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. The coalition said on Tuesday that it launched air strikes on Sanaa which struck caves storing missiles, drones and weapons. Huthi-run al-Masirah TV said around 15 air strikes hit in and around Sanaa overnight.
The violence and cracks in the coalition could hamper United Nations efforts to push forward peace agreements and talks to end a war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country to the brink of famine.
Divisions have spread with the overall war - which is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia and Shia power Iran - largely stuck in stalemate.
The UN's Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said he held a "positive and engaging" meeting with Saudi's deputy defence minister, Prince Khaled bin Salman, on Monday to discuss the crisis.
"Tireless role under Khaled bin Salman's leadership to restore order and stability in south Yemen," he tweeted Tuesday. "We agreed on the need for continuous dialogue."
Griffiths told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that the world cannot underestimate the risks that the military action in southern Aden and Abyan "pose for the future of the country."
He said implementation of a December agreement on the opening and redeployment of forces from the key port of Hodeidah in the north "cannot be a precondition for achieving peace in all of Yemen."
"There is no time to lose," Griffiths said by video from Amman. "The stakes are becoming too high for the future of Yemen, the Yemeni people and the wider region."