Yemen’s main southern separatist group said it would establish self-rule in areas it controlled, which the Saudi-backed government warned would have “catastrophic consequences”.
The move threatens to renew conflict between the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Saudi-backed government, nominal allies in Yemen’s war, while the UN tries to secure a nationwide truce to confront coronavirus.
STC deployed its forces on Sunday in Aden, the interim seat of government ousted from Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement. Reuters journalists saw STC fighters in pickup trucks and military vehicles in a main street.
STC is one of the main groups fighting the Houthis as part of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Separatists, long backed by Saudi coalition partner the United Arab Emirates, previously clashed with government forces.
In a statement, STC announced emergency rule in Aden and southern governorates, saying it would take control of Aden’s port and airport and state institutions such as the central bank.
The Saudi-backed government and southern regions of Shabwa, Hadhramout and Socotra, among the few areas under coalition control, issued separate statements rejecting the declaration.
Yemen Foreign Minister Mohammed Al-Hadhrami said the STC announcement constituted “a resumption of its armed insurgency” and a “rejection and complete withdrawal from the Riyadh agreement”, a deal which ended a previous stand-off between separatists and government last year.
The STC “will bear the dangerous and catastrophic consequences for such an announcement”, he said in a statement.
STC Vice-President Hani Ali Brik accused government of hampering the agreement. In a Twitter post, he reiterated accusations against Hadi’s government of mismanagement and corruption, charges it denies.
Yemen has been mired in violence since the Houthis ousted Hadi’s government in Sanaa in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene.
The conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is in a military stalemate.
The Houthis hold most major cities despite fighting that killed more than 100 000. The war choked supply lines in the poorest Arabian peninsula nation, leaving millions on the brink of famine and dependent on international aid.
The Saudi-led coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire prompted by a UN plea to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. It extended the ceasefire for a month, but the Houthis have not accepted the truce and violence continues.
Yemen has reported one confirmed case of coronavirus, aid groups fear a catastrophic outbreak should it spread among a malnourished population in a country with a shattered health system and little testing.
The UN is trying to convene virtual talks to forge a truce, co-ordinate coronavirus efforts and agree on humanitarian and economic confidence-building measures to restart peace negotiations stalled since late 2018.
The STC, which wants to be included in political negotiations, in January pulled out of committees implementing the Riyadh deal.
The UAE, which like the STC opposes the Islamist Islah party, the backbone of Hadi’s government, scaled down its presence last year, but retains influence through thousands of southern fighters it backs.