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SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates have wrested control of much of the southern port city of Aden, including the presidential palace, from forces loyal to the internationally backed government after heavy fighting, Yemeni security officials said Saturday.

The death toll in four days of fighting in the southern city climbed to more than 70 people, including civilians, the officials said.

The latest development could further fracture the coalition that has battled Iran-aligned Houthi rebels since 2015 on behalf of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government, which is largely confined to Aden. Houthis control the north and the capital, Sanaa

Col. Turki al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, was quoted Saturday in the state-run Saudi Press Agency as saying that "the coalition's joint leadership is calling for an immediate cease-fire in Yemen's interim capital of Aden ... and will use military force against those who violate that."

He said the coalition called on the separatist Southern Transitional Council and its Security Belt paramilitary forces to "return immediately to its positions and withdraw from all positions they seized in the past days."

Security officials in Aden, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief the media, said Saudi troops have been guarding the offices of Hadi and his ministers in the presidential palace, but Security Belt forces are outside the building. They said about 300 presidential palace guards were allowed to leave the area, and Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maisari and top military officials were evacuated to Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

Saudi Arabia has invited the warring sides in Aden for an "emergency meeting" in Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi news agency.

The separatists later said in a brief statement they accepted the cease-fire and the meeting invitation.

The fighting broke out Wednesday when forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council attempted to break into the presidential palace in Aden after a call from ex-Cabinet minister Hani Bin Braik, who serves as deputy head of the Southern Transitional Council, to "topple" Hadi's government.

Braik accused Hadi and his forces of being members of, or loyal to, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab political movement that the United Arab Emirates and some other Arab countries view as a terrorist organization.

The internationally recognized 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 stalemated war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, thrust millions to the brink of famine and spawned the world's most devastating humanitarian crisis.

The United Arab Emirates is a key member of the coalition. But its relations with Hadi have been tense amid allegations the United Arab Emirates has offered patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession as well as what the president perceives as United Arab Emirates violations of his country's sovereignty.

The United Arab Emirates' official WAM news agency reported Saturday that the country's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, called for an end to the military escalation in Aden.

Government officials said at least 45 people, both combatants and civilians, died in clashes at the Fourth Brigade camp. Another five civilians were killed in the surrounding Dar Saad neighborhood, according to health officials.

That raised the death toll to 70 along with dozens wounded in the fighting in Aden last week.

"We cannot find safe roads to flee the clashes. There is no way to get out. People are frightened as heavy fighting came close to them," a resident in Dar Saad said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

A Section on 08/11/2019

Print Headline: Yemeni separatists seize much of Aden

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