ADEN, Yemen – Tens of thousands of Yemenis rallied in Aden on Thursday in support of separatist forces who took over the southern port, the temporary seat of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, in a move that exposed rifts in a Sunni Muslim military coalition.
The United Arab Emirates-backed southern separatists seized control of government military bases last weekend, fracturing the Saudi-led alliance battling the Iran-aligned Houthi group and complicating U.N. peace efforts to end the war.
Demonstrators demanded recognition of southerners’ right to self-rule in Aden, where the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is based after being ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
Many traveled into Aden from other southern provinces on Wednesday, sleeping overnight in the central parade square. One man held up a battered old identity document from former South Yemen and many waved the South Yemen flag.
“We call on the international community and the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to respect the southern people as a key partner in stemming the Persian tide in the region and fighting terrorism to achieve…regional and global stability,” said a statement to mark the rally.
The separatists are a major component of the Western-backed alliance that intervened in Yemen against the Houthis in March 2015, but have a rival agenda to Hadi’s government. The war has revived old strains between north and south Yemen, formerly separate countries that united into a single state in 1990.
The rally statement, issued by civil society groups and unions, accused Hadi’s government of mismanagement, saying it had become “a guillotine at Yemenis’ necks”.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) took over Aden after accusing the Islah party allied to Hadi of being complicit in a Houthi missile attack on southern forces earlier this month, a charge the party denies.
A local official told Reuters that separatist forces had moved away from the nearly empty presidential palace and central bank. There was no sign yet they had quit the military camps.
An STC spokesman said on Wednesday they would keep control unless the Islamist Islah and northerners were removed from positions of power in the south.
Hadi’s government has called the move a “coup”. The UAE has echoed a Saudi call for dialogue to exit the crisis but did not call on southern forces it funds and arms to cede control.
Riyadh wants to host a summit to resolve matters. Hadi’s government said it would not participate until STC forces withdraw and asked Abu Dhabi to stop backing them.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia’s main military ally on the ground for most of the war, has scaled back its presence in Yemen since June amid Western pressure to end the war. It said it will continue to back some 90,000 Yemeni forces made up of southern separatists and coastal plain fighters.
The UAE pull-back and the Aden crisis come as the United Nations tries to reduce tensions throughout the country to pave the way for peace talks. The Houthis, who control Sanaa and most big urban centers, point to Aden as proof that Hadi is unfit to rule and cannot be a serious partner in any negotiations.
“We respect the masses gathered in our beloved south today. Anyone who does not respect the multitudes in the north and south who reject Hadi and his followers must be sick and deranged,” Houthi deputy foreign minister Hussein al-Azzi tweeted.
The United Nations says the war, which has killed tens of thousands and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine, needs an inclusive political solution.