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Tensions escalate in Aden after two south Yemeni fighters killed

After two members of Security Belt Forces shot, leader of southern separatist movement calls on supporters to storm hilltop presidential palace - though his cry appears unheeded
Yemeni security forces at the funeral for their colleagues in Aden on Wednesday (AFP)

Two members of the Emirati-backed Security Belt Forces in Yemen were killed on Wednesday in clashes with pro-government fighters in the southern city of Aden, security officials said. 

The fighting broke out after hundreds of southern separatists attended a funeral for police officers and a prominent commander who were among 49 people killed last Thursday in two attacks in and around the government-held port city, targeting security personnel. 

As the crowd chanted anti-government slogans near the hilltop presidential palace, shooting was exchanged with presidential guards. A third person was also killed in the clashes that injured 9, Reuters reported.

It was the same area in the centre of Aden where militants last week targeted a police station with a suicide car bomb, followed by a Houthi assault on newly trained cadets at a military parade.

After the clashes, Hani bin Breik, one of the leaders of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist movement pushing for the restoration of the former independent state of South Yemen, called for supporters to march on the presidential palace. 

The tweet below, posted by Mokhtar al-Rahbi, an advisor to Yemen's minister of information, shows a video bin Breik put out on Wednesday.

[Translation: "The terrorist Hani bin Breik, the wanted fugitive, announces mobilisation against the legitimate government, and calls for chaos and storming the presidential palace in Aden"]

In the video, bin Breik said those in the palace were allied to the Islah Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's Yemeni branch, which he described as "the terrorist political party" which had "shed blood", without giving further details. He called on southern militias to "march on the palace" and oust the "treacherous" rulers.

Later in a tweet, he said he was calling for a revolt on the palace after its attack on "unarmed" people who wanted to stage a peaceful demonstration in front of the palace.

However, there was no sign late on Wednesday that such a march had begun. Yemeni news site al-Mashhad al-Yemeni reported that bin Breik had left the country and headed for the United Arab Emirates. MEE could not immediately verify the report.

In a statement, STC officials in London said late Wednesday that forces loyal to the government had fired at civilians and the movement "was left with no choice but to mobilise Southern defence forces to ensure protection of civilian population and restore a level of stability".

"Our aim remains de-escalation of violence, hence why we are trying to stabilise the situation in Aden and ensure rule of law in the absence of a credible legitimate goverment," the statement said.

'A call for calm'

Al-Rabhi tweeted that the "coup of the UAE militias in Aden has failed and the legitimate government forces are controlling the situation in Aden".

Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, warned late on Wednesday that the developments in Aden were "worrying" and called for dialogue.

"A call for calm is necessary. Escalation cannot be an acceptable choice, after the despicable terrorist operation. A political framework, communication and dialogue are essential for accumulated [conflicts] that cannot be resolved by resorting to use of force," he tweeted.

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The United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, also expressed concern about the escalation.

"I am alarmed by the military escalations in Aden today, including reports of clashes in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace. I am also deeply concerned by the recent rhetoric encouraging violence against Yemeni institutions," he said on Twitter. 

The recent attacks come after the UAE announced last month that it was drawing down its forces from Yemen after fighting against the Houthis as part of the Saudi-led coalition since 2015. The Emiratis have suggested they are looking to hand control to their Yemeni proxies, such as the STC.

Tensions have run high in recent years in Aden between the Security Belt, closely aligned with the STC, and forces backing the Aden-based government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. 

The STC, formed in 2017, has been calling for a separation from the north, complaining about the government's corruption and mismanagement, and has taken over many government functions in Aden.

STC officials told MEE last month that the UAE's drawdown would not impact the south where a withdrawal would "leave a vacuum that would be difficult to deal with", and also said the UN peace process would fail if they weren't included.

On Wednesday, the movement reiterated its desire to come to the negotiation table. "The context on the ground has now changed and has highlighted a gap in UN-led efforts - the urgency of the south - which we have long expressed. The STC stands ready to play our part in this process," a statement said.