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Yemen government says UAE-backed southern separatists staging coup in Aden

So-called Security Belt forces say they have overrun three military barracks and taken empty presidential palace
Southern separatist forces shout slogans as they patrol a road during clashes with government forces in Aden (Reuters)

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government accused United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed southern separatists of staging a coup in Aden after their fighters took over all military camps in the southern port city, prompting Riyadh to call for an urgent meeting of the warring parties.

"What is happening in the temporary [internationally recognised government] capital of Aden by the Southern Transitional Council is a coup against institutions of the internationally recognised government," the foreign ministry said in a Twitter post.

Southern separatists have taken control of all government military bases in Aden, local officials confirmed on Saturday, as fighting mounted between the two former allies. 

The so-called Security Belt forces overran three military barracks belonging to unionist forces and seized the all-but-empty presidential palace. "We took the Maashiq palace from presidential (guard) forces without a fight," a spokesman told AFP.

An eyewitness confirmed that the presidential guard had handed over the palace, though there was no immediate confirmation from the Saudi-backed government whose temporary headquarters are in Yemen, Reuters said.

Saudi Arabia on Saturday demanded an "urgent meeting" between the warring parties. "Saudi Arabia is following with great concern the developments in the interim Yemeni capital," the Saudi foreign ministry said on Twitter. "The kingdom invites the government of Yemen and all parties to the conflict in Aden to hold an urgent meeting in Saudi Arabia to discuss their differences, to give a chance to wisdom and dialogue, to renounce divisions, to end strife and unite."

Medical sources told Reuters that at least eight civilians had been killed during fighting on Friday.

Civilians trapped in their homes

The warring parties are both members of the Saudi-led pro-government coalition which has been battling Houthi rebels since March 2015. 

The Security Belt forces are trained by the UAE, a key partner in the coalition which intervened in Yemen to prop up the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as it battled with the Houthis.

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Southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990 and the north is widely perceived to have imposed unification by force.

Saturday's clashes initially centred on the presidential palace in the predominantly residential Crater district, near Aden International Airport, and in a neighbourhood where Interior Minister Ahmed al-Mayssari lives, residents said.

The separatists also took over Mayssari's house, which he had already vacated, officials said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said the battles had trapped civilians in their homes with dwindling supplies of food and water.

The aid group said prolonged fighting in Aden, a gateway for commercial and aid supplies, could impact efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis gripping the rest of the country.

UN chief call for 'inclusive dialogue'

The clashes began on Wednesday after the separatists accused an Islamist party allied to Hadi of complicity in a missile attack on a military parade in Aden, one of three separate attacks earlier this month that targeted southern forces.

The separatists and Hadi's government are nominally united in their battle against the Houthis, who chased Hadi from the capital Sanaa in late 2014, but they have rival agendas for Yemen's future.

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The UAE said on Saturday that all efforts should focus on defeating the Houthis and called for an end to the escalation in Aden.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed called on UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths "to deploy efforts and exert pressure" to that purpose.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday urged the parties to cease hostilities and engage in "inclusive dialogue".

The United Nations is trying to de-escalate tensions countrywide as it tries to implement a peace deal in the main port city of Hodeidah further to the north, to pave the way for wider political talks to end the war.

Drone attack

Separately, the Houthis' Al-Masirah TV quoted a military spokesman as saying the group had launched a drone attack against Saudi Arabia's civilian Abha airport on Saturday, targeting the fuel depot and control tower.

Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV said air traffic at the airport was normal.

The Houthis, who have stepped up cross-border missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia, control Sanaa, Hodeidah and other major urban centres, while Hadi's government holds Aden and a string of western coastal towns.

The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say their revolution is against corruption.

The UAE scaled down its military presence in Yemen in June amid pressure from western allies to end the war and concerns about rising tensions with Iran in the Gulf.