Yemen’s government is reportedly preparing to flee the country after fighters from a separatist group backed by the UAE seized control in the city of Aden and surrounded the presidential palace.
The internationally recognised government of Yemen has been fighting for nearly three years to regain control of the country after losing the capital Sanaa and much of the north to the Houthi rebels.
But tensions have been growing in recent months between the government, supported by Saudi Arabia, and a southern faction backed by the UAE, who want to form their own country in the south.
Tensions spilled over into open warfare over the weekend on the streets of Aden, the southern city that has served as the government’s de facto capital.
Separatist forces took over much of the city and by Tuesday evening they had surrounded the presidential palace, where the country’s prime minister, Ahmed bin Dagher, and several other senior government ministers were holed up.
Security officials told the Associated Press they expected Mr Dagher would flee to Saudi Arabia, where the country’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, has been living in exile since 2015.
Mr Dagher denounced the separatist onslaught as a “coup” and pleaded with Saudi Arabia to intervene on the government’s behalf.
At least 36 people have been killed and another 185 wounded in the fighting in Aden since Sunday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The urban warfare, which has involved tanks and artillery, has brought aid operations grinding to a halt in a city that was once considered one of the few stable regions in war-ravaged Yemen.
“The fighting in Aden makes it impossible for us to carry out our life-saving work,” said Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s Yemen Country Director.
“Our staff are forced to shelter at home and in bunkers while gun battles rage outside. Yemen’s children have suffered enough. They’re dying every day from preventable causes like hunger and diseases like cholera and diphtheria.”
The aid group estimated late last year that around 130 children were dying every day from disease and malnutrition in the Arab world’s poorest country.
The fighting on the streets of Aden reflects the complicated involvement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen.
The two Gulf countries are friends and allies and are fighting together against the Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran.
But while Saudi Arabia has firmly backed Yemen’s government, the UAE’s forces in Aden have given support to the southerners.
Distrust between the government and the southerners has been growing since last year and in May a group of embittered southerners formed the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
The goal of the STC is to reform South Yemen, which existed as an independent country until it was united with the north in 1990.
The US, which is backing Saudi Arabia as it fights on behalf of the Yemeni government, called for an end to the fighting.
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“The Yemeni people are already facing a dire humanitarian crisis. Additional divisions and violence within Yemen will only increase their suffering,” a State Department spokeswoman said.