By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN (Reuters) – Yemen government forces on Wednesday captured Aden airport from southern separatists and attacked the city’s eastern suburbs, residents and officials said, in renewed fighting that deepened a rift between supposed allies in a Saudi-led coalition.
Forces of the Saudi-backed government have recaptured most of the neighbouring towns they had lost to the United Arab Emirates-backed separatists earlier this month before moving on towards Aden, the temporary seat of the government.
The government’s information minister Moammar al-Eryani said on Twitter government forces had taken Aden’s airport from the separatists. Residents confirmed the report.
The Iran-aligned Houthi movement stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities. On Wednesday, it said it launched armed drones on “military targets” in the Saudi regions of Jizan and Najran.
The separatists and the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are nominally united under the Saudi-led coalition in their battle against the Houthis.
But the UAE has been at odds with the government because it comprises the Islah party, seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement which the Gulf state has been fighting across the Middle East and North Africa. Islah denies being a member of the Brotherhood.
The Emirati government and a spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Western-backed, Sunni Muslim coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthi movement that ousted Hadi from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. His government relocated to Aden.
Witnesses said clashes could be heard in Aden’s al-Arech and Khor Maksar districts, as well as around Aden’s airport, which has been under the control of the UAE-backed forces since 2015.
Both sides exchanged artillery fire across the city but southern separatists withdrew from some positions and check-points, allowing government forces to reach Aden’s central neighbourhoods, witnesses said.
Hadi forces were seen securing areas around the presidential palace and the headquarters of Yemen’s central bank.
“The State’s return to Aden is a victory for all Yemenis,” Yemen’s Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed said in a statement, urging reform of the security services.
Yemen’s Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maysari warned government forces not to take revenge against southerners.
Government forces took control of Zinjibar, the capital of the neighbouring Abyan province, earlier on Monday, after securing most of the oil producing province of Shabwa and its liquefied natural gas terminal in Balhaf.
The separatists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), who seek to restore the South Yemen republic which merged with the north in 1990, clashed occasionally with the government for several years before new hostilities erupted this month.
The separatists accuse the government of mismanagement and supporting extremism, allegations Hadi’s officials deny.
Saudi Arabia has called for a summit to end the standoff, which has complicated U.N. efforts to end the war in Yemen. But Hadi’s government said it would not participate until the separatists cede control of sites they seized earlier in August.
The standoff has exposed differences between regional allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which in June scaled down its presence in Yemen while still backing southern separatist fighters.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf, Writing By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by William Maclean and Janet Lawrence)