The head of Yemen’s separatist movement said he was ready to take part in Saudi-brokered peace talks after clashes with pro-government forces killed dozens in second city Aden.
Southern Transitional Council (STC) leader Aidarus al-Zubaidi also said late Sunday that he was committed to a ceasefire in Aden, where the separatists have seized the presidential palace and army camps.
Last week’s fighting pitted the UAE-trained Security Belt Force dominated by fighters who back the STC – which seeks independence for south Yemen – against loyalist forces.
For the past five years both camps, backed by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been engaged in a war against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.
Zubaidi, in a televised speech, said last week’s violence had been “provoked” by forces loyal to Riyadh-based Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Separatist fighters were left with “only two options: either self-defence, or surrender and accepting the liquidation of our just cause,” Zubaidi said, according to an English translation of his comments posted on the STC website.
He claimed that loyalist forces wanted “to implement a plan based on the assassination of our leaders, and then to provoke our people and liquidate our presence”.
Yemen’s government has accused the STC and the UAE of staging a “coup” against it.
Separatists and government soldiers have theoretically been allied in a Saudi-led coalition against the Iranian-supported Huthi rebels since 2015.
Huthi forces control vast swathes of Yemen’s north, including the capital Sanaa.
The amount of weapons and ammunition found with loyalist forces were “sufficient to fight the Iranian Huthi enemy on all fronts without coalition support for at least 12 months”, Zubaidi said.
But he voiced the “readiness” of separatists “to work responsibly with… Saudi Arabia in managing this crisis” and to “attend the meeting called by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with full openness”.
“We renew our commitment to continue the ceasefire” which the coalition called for on Saturday, he added.
Both the Yemeni government and separatists said Sunday they backed Riyadh’s call for dialogue and a suspension of the fighting, which threatened to deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis.
There have been no reports of clashes since then.
Since the fighting flared on Thursday, around 40 people have been killed and 260 others wounded including civilians, according to the UN.
Since 2015, fighting between the Huthis and Yemeni loyalists backed by the Saudi-led coalition has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, aid agencies say.
The country is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis because of the raging conflict, according to the UN which estimates that almost 80 percent of Yemen’s 24.1 million are in need of assistance.
Early on Sunday, Saudi Arabia conducted an air strike against a separatist position in Aden and warned of further attacks if they fail to withdraw from positions they seized in the city.
Hadi held talks with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday to discuss the situation, the state-run SPA news agency reported.
South Yemen was an independent state until 1990. Strong resentment remains in the south among southerners towards northerners who they accuse of imposing national unification by force.
The latest incidents are not the first example of southern separatists opposing forces loyal to Hadi.
In January 2018, clashes between the two sides claimed at least 38 lives.
The circumstances around last week’s hostilities remain unclear however.
Separatist commanders accused the Al-Islah Islamist party of killing one of its commanders and “infiltrating” the Hadi government which is politically and financially supported by Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman, a son of the king, affirmed his country’s support for “Yemen’s legitimate government”.
He stressed the need to “preserve unity and stability” in Yemen which, according to the Crisis Group think tank, is facing the risk of a “civil war within a civil war”.