Saudi-UAE delegation in Yemen's Aden to discuss separatist pullout

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Supporters of separatists wave flags of the former South Yemen in the southern port city of Aden

A joint Saudi-Emirati military delegation travelled to Aden on Thursday to discuss demands for a pullout of UAE-backed southern separatists from positions they captured in Yemen's interim capital, government and separatist sources said.

The visit comes after deadly clashes last week in the southern port city that reflected a rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the main partners in a pro-government coalition fighting Iran-aligned Shiite Huthi rebels.

It also coincided with protests in Aden in favour of independence.

The delegation's mission was "to discuss the issue of the withdrawal of southern Security Belt forces from government camps and positions they seized last week", a source in President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's government told AFP.

A source from the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is backed by the UAE-trained Security Belt, said "we will hold talks with them", without giving details.

The forces backing the STC, which seeks an independent South Yemen, seized the presidential palace in Aden on Saturday after clashes with government loyalists left 40 people dead.

The clashes saw Security Belt forces seize control of five barracks, the presidential palace and the prime minister's office.

The Saudi-led coalition condemned the takeover and urged the Security Belt to pull out from positions it captured, while calling for peace talks.

The STC has accepted the call for peace talks and its chairman Aidarus al-Zubaidi said on Sunday that the separatists were ready "to work responsibly with... Saudi Arabia in managing this crisis".

Without commenting on a possible pullout, it said the STC shared the coalition's objective of "fighting against Iranian expansionism in the region".

But Yemen's internationally-recognised government on Wednesday ruled out talks in Saudi Arabia with the separatists, as proposed by Riyadh, until they withdraw from positions they seized in Aden.

The Yemeni embassy in Washington, quoting the foreign ministry, has welcomed what it called the Saudi initiative to address the "coup" in Aden.

But, it said in a tweet, that separatists "must first commit to total withdrawal from areas forcibly seized by STC in past few days before start of any talks".

- Separatist supporters march -

South Yemen was an independent country until it merged with the north in 1990. An armed secession bid four years later ended in occupation by northern forces, giving rise to resentment which persists to this day.

Thousands of Yemeni demonstrators marched in Aden on Thursday in support of the STC and called for the south to be declared an independent state.

Organisers said many of the demonstrators had travelled into the city from neighbouring southern provinces to add their voice to the calls for secession.

Meanwhile Yemen's foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday that it was suspending its work in Aden to protest against "the armed rebellion against legitimate state institutions".

A similar Saudi-UAE military delegation also visited Aden early last year when clashes erupted between Hadi loyalists and STC forces.

Analysts say the break between Hadi's government and the separatists reflects a wider rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that threatens to undermine their common battle against the Huthis.

The latest Saudi-UAE mission follows a visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday by Abu Dhabi's powerful Sheikh Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who met with King Salman and called for dialogue to resolve tensions in Yemen.

Despite four and a half years of military intervention by the coalition, the Huthi rebels remain in control of the capital Sanaa and much of the more populous north.

The conflict has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people and displaced some 3.3 million.

Two-thirds of the population -- some 20 million people -- require humanitarian support, according to the United Nations.