SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates seized the area around the presidential palace in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday after fierce battles with forces loyal to the internationally-backed government, security officials said.
A Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE has been battling rebels in northern Yemen for nearly three years on behalf of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government. But despite having a common enemy, the UAE and Hadi have been locked in a long-running power struggle, which boiled over on Sunday as clashes erupted across the government's seat of power.
Elsewhere in Yemen, al-Qaida militants attacked a checkpoint in the southern Shabwa province, killing at least 12 soldiers in an area where Yemeni troops had claimed victory against the extremist group. The militants claimed the attack in a statement circulated on social media, saying it was in retaliation for abuses by U.S. and UAE-backed forces.
The security officials said fighters loyal to the so-called Southern Transitional Council fought all way to the gates of the palace in central Aden, forcing Hadi's troops to abandon their positions. The officials said Hadi's prime minister and several Cabinet members would soon leave Yemen for Riyadh, where Hadi is already based, but by late Tuesday it was not yet clear if they had done so.
Saudi troops who have been guarding the palace for months stopped the separatists at the gate, preventing them from entering. A senior government official told The Associated Press that Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid Bin Daghar and several ministers remain inside. The official declined to say whether the prime minister was to leave Aden. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.
In the northern district of Dar Saad, witnesses said coalition jets bombed a military camp of Hadi's forces before separatists took control of it. Brig. Gen. Mahran al-Qubati told the AP that his forces respected a cease-fire announced by the coalition earlier in the day but the separatists used the truce to attack his base using Emirati armored vehicles.
Col. Turki al-Malki, the coalition spokesman, declined to comment on the bombing. "I am not able to discuss the details of an ongoing operation," he told the AP.
The fighting had subsided by midday, when checkpoints run by both sides could be seen across the city.
The fighting in Aden erupted on Sunday, when a deadline issued by the separatists for the government to resign expired. Hadi, who has been in Saudi Arabia for most of the war, has described the separatists' action as a "coup." The violence has killed at least 36 people and wounded 185 since Sunday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
It has also exposed deep divisions within the Saudi-led alliance against the Iran-backed rebels, known as Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. The war has been locked in a bloody stalemate for the last three years, with more than 10,000 people killed and some 2 million displaced by the fighting.
The UAE has viewed Hadi with suspicion because of his alliance with the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab political movement that the Emirates and some other Arab states view as a terrorist organization. Over the past year, the UAE has trained and armed its own forces in Yemen, including the separatists, in a direct challenge to Hadi. Saudi Arabia has thus far avoided taking sides.
The U.S. State Department has expressed concern and called on all parties to "refrain from escalation and further bloodshed." Washington backs the Saudi-led coalition.
"We also call for dialogue among all parties in Aden to reach a political solution," the statement said. "The Yemeni people are already facing a dire humanitarian crisis. Additional divisions and violence within Yemen will only increase their suffering."
In the attack in Shabwa, the militants hit a checkpoint guarded by the so-called Shabwa Elite Force, which has also been trained by the UAE, near the southern city of Ataq, the provincial capital.
Tribesmen in the area say the attack started with a mortar round fired at the checkpoint, followed by heavy gunfire.
Tribesman Youssef al-Khalifi, who lives nearby, said he helped carry the bodies of the wounded to a hospital but that only one survived. Al-Khalifi said the attackers had destroyed a building next to the checkpoint where some of the guards were sleeping and that he helped retrieve some of the bodies from under the rubble.
The UAE-trained Shabwa force was deployed to the region last year and later declared victory over al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, which had used Shabwa as a safe haven.
This story has been corrected to show that the separatist forces have not yet entered the palace itself though they control the area.