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Separatist fighters besiege government forces in southern Yemen's Abyan

Military camps have been either overrun or besieged as the UAE-backed SBF attempts to root Hadi supporters out of the south
Members of UAE-backed southern Yemeni separatist forces stand by a military vehicle during clashes with government forces in Aden (Reuters)
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Sanaa

Separatist fighters in southern Yemen have surrounded and captured a number of government military camps, as tensions between erstwhile allies in the region continue to escalate.

Early on Tuesday morning, fighters from the Security Belt Forces (SBF) - the military wing of the pro-South Yemen independence, Southern Transitional Council (STC) - launched attacks on a number of camps in Abyan province, including a special forces position in the provincial capital of Zinjibar.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Zinjibar camp and another belonging to the military police were in SBF hands.

The move comes after southern forces captured the city of Aden on 10 August, in clashes that left around 40 people dead. 

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An SBF fighter told Middle East Eye his forces had targeted the camps as the province contained many supporters of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is originally from Abyan.

“Many of Hadi’s supporters are from Abyan and when we defeated them in Aden and took over the city, many of them fled the city towards Abyan and joined military camps," said the fighter, who wished to only be identified as Yassin.

"So this threatens the future of Aden as they may attack us anytime.”

Yassin added that Aden was safe and there were no threats in the city - so they moved to pacify the surrounding areas, including Abyan.

“Military reinforcements left Aden this morning to liberate Abyan from the northern invasion," he said, referring to forces loyal to Hadi's government.

The STC, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, has been fighting to achieve independence of the south since it was established in 2017. South Yemen was an independent state between 1967 and 1990, when it merged with the north.

Supporters of Yemen's UAE-backed southern separatists march during a rally in southern port city in Aden (Reuters)
Supporters of Yemen's UAE-backed southern separatists march during a rally in the southern port city Aden (Reuters)

Despite reunification, agitation for independence continued, intensifying with the outbreak of the Yemeni war in 2015.

A Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to try to restore the Hadi government after Houthi rebels ousted him from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014.

The UAE is a key member of the coalition, however their proxies in the south have now turned on Saudi Arabia's Yemeni clients.

Yassin, who is originally from Lahj province, said forces from all southern provinces participated in the campaign against Hadi’s forces in Abyan, and said they had a plan to liberate the province within days.

“We can accept all southern people in the south as citizens or fighters under the leadership of the STC, but we cannot accept them as fighters against us, so we call on all soldiers in the pro-Hadi camps to join us and we will forgive them unless we have no choice but to fight them," he said.

Pro-Hadi forces have struggled to resist the SBF, which controls all weapons and forces in Aden city and some surrounding areas like al-Dhale province.

There are no specific figures about the casualties since fighting in the south erupted earlier this month, but dozens are thought to have been killed and wounded from both sides, according to local reports.

Peace talks

In the past week, Saudi Arabia has called for peace talks between the warring sides in Aden, in a bid to diffuse tensions. The kingdom claimed last week it had "succeeded in calming the situation", leading to the SBF partially withdrawing from key sites it occupied in Aden.

The Hadi government called on the UAE on Tuesday to stop supporting the STC in light of the clashes, but so far there has been no comment from Abu Dhabi, and the fighting continues.

Yassin confirmed that the SBF was the military wing of the STC, and its fighters had not received any instructions to withdraw from public buildings or stop fighting.

“Our responsibility as fighters is to advance on the ground and any peaceful solution should go through the leadership of the STC - and until now we did not receive instructions to stop fighting," he explained.

“We aim to liberate the whole south from invaders [Hadi’s government] and we are working hard to achieve that.”

'They do not want a peaceful solution - they only want independence of the south'

- Ahmed Khalid, government supporter

Hadi supporters in Aden have been hesitant to speak to the media out of fear that the SBF may harass them.

Ahmed Khalid, a supporter of Hadi who used to live in Aden but who fled towards Taiz two weeks ago, told MEE the STC did "not want a peaceful solution - they only want independence of the south".

“While the Yemeni government is calling for a peaceful solution in Aden, they call for war and they send their fighters to take over Abyan province and chase fleeing soldiers from Aden," he said.

He warned that the STC was repeating the Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa in 2014 - which sparked the Yemeni war - and said the government could not rely on finding a peacful solution with the southerners.

“The Houthis used to send one group to negotiate and another group to fight, and this scenario is being repeated in Aden,” Khalid said.

Al-Qaeda still a threat

Amin, a resident in Abyan’s Zinjibar district, said battles were still ongoing in the province.

He said warplanes still hovered overhead, while residents hoped for calm.

“When we heard the battles this morning, we were trapped in our houses and thought the battles were between al-Qaeda and the military forces - but then we found out the battles were between the SBF and Hadi’s forces,” Amin told MEE.

He said it was "ridiculous" that fighting was taking place between the two groups while al-Qaeda continued to have a presence in Abyan.

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“It would be better if the fighting forces in Abyan united and liberated the province from al-Qaeda.”

Abyan is a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Hadi's forces have struggled to oust the group from the province.

Amin pointed out that the pro-Hadi forces would not be able to defeat the SBF, as it's fighters had received huge military reinforcements from Aden.

He said the pro-Hadi forces were besieged in their camps and did not have enough weapons and ammunition to resist for more than a few days - after which time the SBF will find themselves with more trouble on their hands.

“Al-Qaeda fighters took over more than a military camp in Abyan by using their
personal weapons. So definitely the SBF can take over the camps by using modern weapons,” said Amin.

“[But] when the SBF win the battles, they will find themselves in the soup, as they have to fight al-Qaeda.”