SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni government forces clashed with separatists in the southern port city of Aden on Sunday in fighting that left at least eight people dead. The country's internationally recognized government considered the separatists' assault an attempted "coup" backed by onetime ally the United Arab Emirates.
Authorities shut down the country's main airport, fearing wider unrest and an Associated Press journalist heard heavy gunfire in the Khor Maksar, Crater, and Mansoura districts, as thick black smoke rose in the sky after an airstrike. The fighting spread to other districts, including areas near the presidential palace. Witnesses say that armed men stormed government offices and riddled the pictures of president's with bullets.
Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid Bin Daghar held a meeting in the presidential palace in which he described the separatists' assault as a "coup," according to a senior government official who attended the meeting. A second official told the AP that the UAE was behind the assault.
Abdel-Khaleq Abdullah, an Emirati political commentator, rejected the allegations and said that the UAE has been always fighting terrorism and working toward stability in Yemen.
"Emiratis are restoring stability in Yemen," he said, "Whether people want autonomy or stay in a unity, it's the UAE's business," he said.
Witnesses said residents were fleeing the areas where the fighting was taking place. Schools and universities were shut down and students were told to stay home. A medical official said at least eight people were killed and 80 others wounded. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
Doctors Without Borders said that its hospital received four dead and over 80 others wounded from the clashes. Airport authorities ordered the evacuation of all planes, fearing they could be damaged in the fighting. State-run carrier Yemenia cancelled all flights to and from Aden.
The fighting exposed the deep rift between the two allies of the Saudi-led coalition and self-exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Both have been at war with Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, since March 2015. The UAE is a key member of the Saudi-led coalition allied with Hadi's government, but has had tense relations with the president. UAE also backs leaders of the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which advocates for secession and challenges Hadi's government.
The council has been backed by forces known as the Security Belt, who have been trained and armed by the UAE, in addition to forces that fall under the command of former Aden governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi, along with others under the command of Aden's Security Chief, Shallal al-Shayae.
On Saturday, the Saudi-ledcoalition issued a statement calling for "self-restraint" and described the protests as "popular demands to fix government flaws."
Aden, the seat of Hadi's government, has seen a sharp deterioration in services amid accusations of corruption and wasting public funds. Hadi supporters blame the coalition, saying it has failed to fulfill promises to rebuild Aden while barring the president, his sons and top commanders from returning to the country.
The tug-of-war between UAE and Hadi has fractured the coalition and contributed to the nearly three-year stalemated war with the Houthis, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced 2 million others. The U.N. says it is the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Northern and southern Yemen were unified in 1990. Southerners have long advocated for greater autonomy or outright secession, complaining of domination by the north. But not all separatists have joined forces with al-Zubaidi, and many fear a return of the civil war that raged in South Yemen from 1986 until unification.
"We won't allow a repeat of the painful past in Aden and we will not allow disturbances," Bin Daghar warned on his Twitter account. "The government won't be the reason behind it."
Later in the day, Bin Daghar addressed the coalition, saying, "the allies should not accept the liquidation of the legitimacy which hosted the coalition in the fight against Houthis."
Aidarous' Southern Transitional Council issued a statement Sunday saying that it's sticking to "peaceful discourse" in demanding the government's resignation and the improvement living conditions in the south. "Our move today is peaceful and we stress that we are avoiding military frictions," said the statement.