ADEN (Reuters) - The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen acted on Monday to work out a ceasefire with its nominal allies in the south of the country who turned on each other in a power struggle, fracturing the military alliance.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the main powers in Yemen’s Sunni Muslim coalition, have formed a joint committee to oversee a truce between UAE-backed southern separatists and Saudi-backed government forces in the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, a joint statement carried on state media said.
The separatists, who are demanding self-rule in the south, are part of the Saudi-led, Western-backed coalition that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to try to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi which was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
“Internal dialogue, and not fighting, is the only way to resolve internal Yemeni differences,” the Saudi vice minister of defence, Khalid bin Salman, tweeted on Monday.
“We are working with the UAE for security and stability in Aden, Shabwa and Abyan and...to unify ranks and voices to combat terrorist threats, whether from the Iran-backed Houthis or from al Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State),” said Khalid, a son of the Saudi king.
The Houthis have stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities. On Monday, the group’s military spokesman said they launched armed drones on a “military target” in Riyadh, the first such attack on the Saudi capital in over a year.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki, responding to a Reuters’ request for comment, said the Houthi claim was “fake and deceptive”. There was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia wants to resolve the standoff in the south to refocus the coalition on fighting the Houthis, who control Sanaa and most big urban centers in the Arabian Peninsula nation.
Separatists forces early this month seized control of the southern port of Aden, interim seat of Hadi’s government, and last week took the capital of nearby Abyan province.
Separatists and government forces have also clashed in the oil-producing province of Shabwa.
On Monday, Hadi’s forces moved towards Balhaf, site of Yemen’s liquefied natural gas terminal, in Shabwa, where southern forces have a major military base, military sources said. Balhaf is run by France’s Total but it has been in a preservation mode - maintaining equipment but without production or export of oil - since 2015 due to the war.
Austria’s OMV, one of the few foreign oil firms still operating in Yemen, told Reuters in an emailed statement on Monday that production at Shabwa’s oilfield was not affected by the latest fighting.
The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which accuses Hadi’s government of mismanagement, seized control of Aden after accusing a party allied to Hadi of being complicit in a Houthi attack on southern forces.
The standoff has exposed a rift between Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which in June scaled down its presence in Yemen under Western pressure to end the devastating war but continues to support thousands of southern separatist forces.
The Aden crisis complicated U.N. efforts to implement peace deals elsewhere in the country and pave the way for negotiations to end a war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
The Saudi-UAE statement urged all parties to disengage and redeploy troops. It reiterated a Saudi call for a summit in the kingdom to resolve the standoff while stressing the need to preserve the “stability, independence and territorial integrity” of Yemen under “the legitimate president of Yemen.”
Hadi’s government has said it will not join talks until separatists ceded control of sites they had seized. [nL5N25H1KY]
The separatist STC has said it will not hand over control of government military camps in Aden until the Islamist Islah party, a backbone of Hadi’s government, and northerners are removed from positions of power in the south.
Reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo, Marwa Rashad in Riyadh and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich