SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- Fierce clashes have erupted in Yemen’s southern province of Abyan between Saudi-backed government troops and separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates, with at least six fighters from both sides killed in the past 24 hours, officials and residents said Tuesday.
The fighting between the two sides -- allies in the Saudi-led coalition that for years has battled Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels based in the north -- has added another layer to the complex civil war in the Arab world’s most impoverished country.
It comes amid weeks of mounting tensions after the secessionist Southern Transitional Council last month declared self-rule over the key port city of Aden to assert control over southern Yemen. The fighting could further undermine a Saudi Arabia-brokered peace deal between the government side and the separatists.
The clashes broke out as government forces advanced toward Zinjibar, the Abyan provincial capital, and the separatists brought in reinforcements to defend the city, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk to reporters. Residents, who would not give their names, fearing reprisal, said government forces were shelling separatists’ positions.
Yemen's Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami accused the separatists of trying to “destabilize security and stability” in Yemen’s south through “provocative military mobilization.” He vowed the government forces would “defend the homeland, protect its security, territorial integrity, and confront every armed rebellion."
On Monday, southern separatist leader Aydarous al-Zubaidi called on supporters to “take up arms and defend dignity and independence” of Yemen's south.
The secessionist council, which is an umbrella group of heavily armed and well- financed militias propped up by the UAE since 2015, hopes to restore an independent southern Yemen, which existed from 1967-1990.
Yemen’s conflict started with the Houthis capturing the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. The following year, the Saudi-led coalition intervened to battle the rebels and curb Iran’s influence in what turned into a stalemated regional proxy war.
Since then, more than 100,000 people -- fighters and civilians -- have been killed. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis’ ground fighting has displaced more than 3 million people and left millions more on the bring of famine.