SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Fighting between Yemeni government forces and southern separatists entered a third day Friday, leaving more than 20 killed, including five civilians, officials said.
The clashes could further complicate Yemen's bloody civil war and fracture the government side in the conflict. The government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, have been battling rebels since 2015.
Also on Friday, the rebel Houthis announced the brother of their leader was killed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The announcement by the rebel-run Interior Ministry in the capital, Sanaa, posted on the rebel Almasirah website offered no details on the killing of Ibrahim al-Houthi, brother of rebel leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi.
Yemeni security officials said people allied with the Saudi-led coalition killed Ibrahim al-Houthi and an associate in Sanaa earlier this week. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Farea Al-Muslimi, a visiting researcher with Chatham House, a London-based policy institute, said Ibrahim was a low-level figure who the Houthi leader used as a special envoy.
Abdel-Malek "used to rely on him to do political mediation, convey certain messages, strike political deals, or send threats, but the latter did not have any official title or position within the group," he said.
The rebel statement said Ibrahim was "assassinated by treacherous hands" in the Saudi-led alliance fighting the rebels on behalf of Yemen's internationally recognized government.
Yemen's stalemated war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the government has claimed tens of thousands of lives, thrust millions to the brink of famine and spawned the world's most devastating humanitarian crisis.
The rebels control the country's north and Sanaa, while government forces of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi hold mainly southern Yemen.
But the south is also a stronghold of Yemen's separatists, who have clashed with Hadi's forces since Wednesday. Paradoxically, the separatists are supported by the United Arab Emirates, a key member of the Saudi-led alliance and as such, a Hadi ally — at least in theory.
Some 20 people were killed, including five civilians, and dozens were wounded in the violence, according to doctors in the southern port city of Aden and security officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The clashes have pitted Hadi's guards against a UAE-backed militia known as Security Belt. Hani Bin Braik, deputy head of the so-called Southern Transitional Council, had called upon separatists to march on the presidential palace in Aden and topple Hadi.
The government, in turn, has accused the separatist leader of fomenting sedition that would only serve the rebels and called upon the Saudi and Emirati governments to press the separatists to halt their attacks.
The International Crisis Group warned Friday the fighting would "make an already multi-faceted conflict even more complex and intractable."
"Such a conflict would deepen what is already the world's worst humanitarian crisis and make a national political settlement harder to achieve," read a statement issued by the Brussels-based group.
The United Nations issued a statement late Friday saying Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "is deeply concerned by the violent clashes in Aden" and is calling on the parties to stop the fighting and engage in dialogue.
Similar clashes erupted in January 2018 when separatists attempted to seize government facilities and military bases in Aden. Peace was restored after a few weeks.
"We have seen what happens when you simply put a lid on things. In January 2018 the conflict was simply frozen in place and this is the result of that," said Peter Salisbury, senior analyst with ICG, a non-profit research institute.
A political and security arrangement envisaging a cease-fire and the inclusion of separatists into the government could serve as a long-term solution to the conflict, Salisbury explained.
Videos showing Hadi's forces on Aden streets carrying machine guns and cheering to prove they were in full control were circulated online. Hadi's fighers chanted "God is great, and we are all with legitimacy, we are all Abed Rabbo." In some of the videos, gunshots could be heard in the background and vehicle-mounted weapons could be seen.
The national airline, Yemenia Airways, the only operating airline in and out of Yemen, on Thursday diverted all flights to Seiyun airport, nearly 840 Kilometers (522 miles) northeast of Aden airport due to the volatile situation.
The International Rescue Committee announced Friday that it would suspend its aid operations in Aden citing the ongoing clashes.
"This spike in violence and instability is damaging vital infrastructure, including water supply, and will complicate aid efforts," the IRC said in a statement.
Separately, the World Food Program said Friday it would resume food aid for the 850,000 people in Houthi-controlled Sanaa City after the end of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
The partial suspension of aid to Sanaa began in late June amid accusations the rebels were diverting the food from the hungriest people in the Arab world's poorest country, which has been pushed to the brink of starvation. The suspension affected 850,000 people in Sanaa, where the WFP says the bulk of the looting was taking place.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said WFP welcomed what it called "important and positive steps" taken by Sanaa authorities on safeguards to ensure that food assistance reaches the most vulnerable people in Houthi-controlled areas.
He said as part of an Aug. 3 agreement, WFP will also start registering 9 million people in Houthi-controlled areas for smartcards, and it will be granted unimpeded access to all areas where it needs to work.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj reported this story in Sanaa and AP writer Noha ElHennawy reported from Cairo. AP writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.