Southern separatists seized Yemeni government security and military bases near Aden after clashes between nominal allies that complicate UN peace efforts, residents and officials said.
Separatists and the Yemeni government are part of a Saudi-led military coalition battling the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which took over the capital Sanaa and most major cities in 2014.
The separatists broke with government when they seized its temporary base Aden on August 10.
On Tuesday, they took over military police, Special Forces and military brigade camps in Zinjibar, east of Aden, local officials said.
This effectively put control of the Abyan capital in the hands of the United Arab Emirates-backed separatists, who seek self-rule in the south, and further weakened the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who resides in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The Saudi-led military coalition, which backs Hadi, carried out air strikes on Zinjibar, two sources including a local official said.
“What is happening in Abyan is unjustified escalation by the Southern Transitional Council (STC – the separatists),” Hadi’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
STC president Aidaroos al-Zubaidi headed with a delegation to the Saudi city of Jeddah after accepting the kingdom’s invitation to a summit in Aden, the council said.
Yemeni sources said the summit could reshuffle Hadi’s government to include the STC.
The violence and cracks in the coalition are hampering UN efforts to advance peace deals elsewhere in the country and talks to end a war that killed thousands and drove the Arabian Peninsula country to the brink of famine.
In northern Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition carried out air strikes on Houthi military targets in Sanaa. The coalition air strikes pounded caves storing missiles, drones and weapons.
The assault appeared to be in response to Houthi attacks on energy assets in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The Western-backed, Sunni Muslim coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthis, who ousted Hadi’s internationally recognised government from power in Sanaa.
Divisions spread with the war – widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim regional rival Iran – largely mired in stalemate.
The STC said its forces would hold Aden until the Islamist Islah party, a backbone of Hadi’s government and northerners were removed from power positions in the south.
The standoff exposed differences between allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which in June scaled down its presence in Yemen but still backs thousands of southern separatists.
STC fighters seized Aden after accusing Islah, which the UAE regards as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, of being complicit in a Houthi missile assault on southern forces earlier this month, an accusation the party denies.
The separatists’ seizure of bases in Abyan show they hold firm to demands to govern the south and be included in shaping Yemen’s future.
“For too long the southern voice has been excluded from any negotiation table,” STC said in a statement to the UN Security Council ahead of a Yemen briefing.
“The onus is now on the international community in particular the UN Security Council to accept new realities on the ground.”
The government, in a letter to the Security Council, reiterated a call on the UAE to stop backing separatist forces.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths said fragmentation of Yemen risked “becoming a stronger and more pressing threat” if the situation in the south continued.
The separatists, who accuse Hadi’s government of mismanagement, aspire to revive South Yemen – a separate country before unification in 1990.
The Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption, point to Aden as proof Hadi is unfit to rule.
They want to raise their profile, visiting Tehran last week where they met with European diplomats. They also named an envoy to Iran, and Iran appointed one in return.