October 16, 2019 / 7:38 AM / a month ago

Yemeni government, separatists seen inking deal to end Aden standoff

DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and southern separatists are expected to sign a deal to end a power struggle in the southern port of Aden that fractured an Arab coalition battling the Iran-aligned Houthi group, officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Yemen's southern separatists stand on a billboard during a rally to show support to the United Arab Emirates amid a standoff with the Saudi-backed government, in the port city of Aden, Yemen September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman/File Photo

The UAE-backed separatist Southern Transition Council (STC) is nominally allied to the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but the two sides fell out in August, with the separatists seizing control of Aden.

Saudi Arabia has hosted indirect talks between them to rebuild the coalition fighting against the Houthi movement that expelled Hadi’s government from the capital Sanaa five years ago.

Fighting between pro-Hadi forces and the separatists had opened a new front in the multi-faceted war and complicated U.N. peace efforts.

Riyadh has been trying to refocus the coalition on fighting the Houthis on its border. The Houthis have repeatedly launched missiles and drone strikes against Saudi cities during the conflict, widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Two officials in Hadi’s government told Reuters the pact to end the Aden standoff would be signed in Riyadh on Thursday. In a statement carried by the state news agency SABA, the government spokesman Rajeh Badi later said no date has been set for signing the agreement.

Another official in Hadi’s cabinet said talks were still under way and the two sides “may still need a few days” before announcing a deal publicly.

STC leader Aidarous al-Zubaidi, who has been involved in the month-long talks in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, headed to Riyadh on Wednesday, according to a post on his Twitter account.

The deal calls for a government reshuffle to include STC, which seeks self-rule in the south, and the restructuring of armed forces under Saudi supervision, sources from both sides have told Reuters.

Saudi forces took control of Aden after Emirati troops withdrew last week. The move seemingly paved the way for ending the crisis that had exposed differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over how to proceed in the wider war that has been in military stalemate for years.

The UAE already scaled down its presence in Yemen in June as Western pressure mounted to end the conflict that has pushed millions to the brink of famine. But Abu Dhabi retains influence through thousands of Yemeni troops it armed and trained.

Hadi’s government has asked the UAE to stop supporting STC. Abu Dhabi criticised Hadi’s government as ineffective and distrusts Islamists with whom he is allied.

Resolving the power struggle in the south and easing Houthi-Saudi tensions would aid U.N. efforts to restart peace talks to end the war that has killed tens of thousands.

The Houthis last month offered to stop missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia if the coalition ended air strikes on Yemen. Riyadh has said it views the offer “positively”.

The group, which controls Sanaa and most big urban centres, extended the offer after claiming responsibility for a Sept. 14 assault on Saudi oil processing facilities. Riyadh rejected the Houthi claim of responsibility and blames Iran for the attacks, a charge Tehran rejects.

The Houthis deny being puppets of Iran and say they are fighting a corrupt system, pointing to the standoff in Aden as proof Hadi is unfit to rule.

Reporting by Reuters Yemen team; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Alison Williams

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