ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni government officials have begun indirect talks with United Arab Emirates-backed southern separatists in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah to end fighting in Aden and other southern provinces, a Yemeni official said on Wednesday.
The fight for Yemen's south has opened a new front in a multi-faceted war and threatens to further fragment Yemen, complicating efforts to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and pushed the nation to the brink of famine.
Yemeni government and separatist forces are both part of a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Iran-aligned Houthi group after it ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.
But the separatists, who seek to restore the former South Yemen republic, have seized control of the southern port of Aden and declared Sanaa government authorities unwanted in the south.
"Indirect talks have started between the government and the STC via the Saudi side; the situation is very difficult and complicated but we hope to achieve some progress," a senior Yemeni official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, carried out air strikes on government forces to support separatists of the Southern Transitional Council as STC forces recaptured control of Aden, forcing a government retreat.
A senior Emirati official said earlier that the Gulf state was confident that the Jeddah meeting would succeed.
"We are looking with confidence and optimism at the success of the Jeddah meeting between Yemen's government and the STC, and unity against the Houthi coup," Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a Twitter post.
CALL FOR SUMMIT
Saudi Arabia has called for a summit meeting in Jeddah to defuse the stand-off. Aidarous al-Zubaidi, leader of the STC, and Yemeni government officials arrived there earlier this week.
But Hadi's government on Wednesday again criticized the UAE for backing the separatists, and stressed it was not in direct talks with STC. The UAE in June withdrew some of its own forces and hardware from the region but maintains influence via tens of thousands of southern fighters it has armed and trained.
"There are no (direct) talks of any kind to this point between the government and the STC," state news agency SABA quoted government spokesman Rajeh Badi as saying.
Yemen's foreign ministry said in a Twitter post that a "serious and transparent stand must be taken against the UAE's deviation from the coalition" for any dialogue to be successful.
Saudi Arabia has been struggling to preserve the coalition since Hadi's government and the STC turned on each other, straining Riyadh's alliance with the UAE.
The internal rift risks further fracturing the Saudi-UAE alliance and scrambling United Nations diplomatic efforts to bring an end to a war largely seen as a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance.
Yemen's south is the only territory seized by the coalition in the war, an area where the Saudis hold less sway, while the Houthis hold most urban centers including Sanaa and the main Red Sea port of Hodeidah in the west.
(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen with additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)