A senior official in Yemen's embattled government on Thursday accused a southern separatist leader of "fomenting sedition" after his forces clashed with Yemeni troops near the presidential palace in Aden, as concerns rose about a new front opening up in the country's devastating civil war.
In a statement carried by the official news agency, Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maisari called on the followers of separatist leader Hani Ben Braik to ignore his calls to overthrow the government, saying "they only aim at engendering war" and undermine the fight against Houthi rebels.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Iran-aligned rebels since 2015 on behalf of the internationally recognized government, which is largely confined to the southern city of Aden. The stalemated war has killed tens of thousands of people and driven the country to the brink of famine.
There have long been tensions within the coalition between northerners who fled to the south during the Houthis' advance and southerners who once had their own state and want greater autonomy or outright independence.
The United Arab Emirates, a leading member of the coalition, has also been at odds with the government over its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional Islamist political movement that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates view as a terrorist group. The UAE has lent support to the separatists and other factions that have clashed with government forces.
The divisions came to a head Wednesday during the burial of a UAE-backed militia commander who was killed in a Houthi rocket attack last week. After laying him to rest in a cemetery nearby, his supporters marched on the presidential palace and clashed with troops stationed there. At least one presidential guard was killed and four people, including two civilians, were wounded.
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The clashes resumed Thursday, leaving another two people wounded, including a child, a security official said. He said presidential guards stationed outside a Central Bank building also traded fire with armed men believed to be separatists. The official was not authorized to brief reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ben Braik, the deputy head of the so-called Southern Transitional Council, has called for the overthrow of the government, accusing it of serving the Brotherhood at the expense of the country.
Al-Maisari, the interior minister, said the government received assurances from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that they are opposed to such acts by the separatists.
Col. Turki al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said Wednesday it "defiantly rejects such serious developments" in Aden and called on all parties to work with the government to "overcome the critical period."
The UAE began withdrawing several thousand troops from Yemen last month in a move that weakens the Saudi-led coalition, signaling differences between the two close allies over how far to pursue the war against the Houthis.
The UAE will still have an estimated 90,000 allied fighters in the coalition-held south, ensuring its continued influence and potentially posing a threat to the Saudi-backed government.
Saudi Arabia has not commented on the troop drawdown, but has adopted a much harder line toward the separatists than it did after a similar eruption of violence in January 2018. After Wednesday's clashes, Saudi troops and armored vehicles moved to secure the presidential palace and prevent further violence.
"Last year, Saudi Arabia did not take that same clear and firm stance toward the Transitional Southern Council. On the contrary, it contained the situation calmly behind the curtains," said Farea al-Muslimi, a researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London.
"If you look at (Saudi-owned) television channels, the way they are talking now about the Transitional Council is no different from the way they do with Houthis."