Saudi Arabia deployed more troops in southern Yemen to contain clashes between nominal allies in the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis that risk further fragmenting the country.
The fight for the south of the country opened a new conflict, focused around Aden, in a multifaceted war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed the long-impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation to the brink of famine.
Saudi soldiers and armed vehicles arrived over the weekend in the capital of oil-producing Shabwa province where the United Arab Emirates-backed separatists are battling forces of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government for control, two local officials said.
The sides are part of the Sunni Muslim coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Iran-aligned Houthi group which ousted the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Sanaa in 2014.
The separatists, who seek to restore the former South Yemen republic, turned on government in early August and seized control of Aden, interim seat of Hadi’s government.
They have since tried to extend their reach to Abyan and Shabwa, clashing repeatedly with government forces.
Saudi Arabia reinforced positions in Shabwa and Aden as Riyadh called for talks to resolve the crisis and refocus the Western-backed coalition on battling the Houthis, who stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities.
“Saudi forces arrived in Shabwa and worked with local government for de-escalation and a ceasefire. All parties responded positively to the coalition’s calls,” coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki said.
The kingdom also called for a Jeddah summit to defuse the standoff. The leader of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), Aidarous al-Zubaidi, arrived in the Saudi Red Sea city to meet Yemeni and Saudi officials, a spokesman said.
TRENCHES AND TUNNELS
Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner, Gulf ally the UAE, intervened on behalf of the STC last week bombing government forces trying to regain control of Aden, forcing them to retreat.
STC forces brought reinforcements to Aden, witnesses said, calling back fighters deployed on the outskirts of Hodeidah port, held by the Houthis, in the west.
The fighters dug tunnels and built trenches at the edges of Aden and blocked main roads to prevent government forces from recapturing it, they said.
The STC, which accuses Hadi’s government of mismanagement, moved on Aden after the UAE scaled down its military presence in Yemen in June under increased Western pressure.
Escalating violence across Yemen and the rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE could complicate UN efforts to restart peace talks.
Earlier this week, coalition warplanes bombed a prison complex in south-west Yemen, killing more than 100 people. The United Nations called for an investigation but the coalition insisted it hit a Houthi arms storage site.