Fighting reportedly erupts in Yemen's UNESCO heritage site

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Fiery clashes convulsed Yemen’s remote Socotra archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on Friday as an armed unit funded by the United Arab Emirates battled government security forces for control of the island’s capital, the Yemeni government and witnesses said.

The UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council seized several state buildings, including the governor’s headquarters, as it pushed into the provincial capital of Hadebo, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.

The Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia, accused the separatist group of bombing civilian targets in a “brutal attack” on the scenic island, normally far removed from the troubles of war-torn Yemen. Witnesses reported hearing explosions and seeing shells crash into the city center, although there were no immediate reports of casualties.

“This armed attack and brutal assault on citizens represents the aggressive and reckless response of the so-called transitional council,” the government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said in a statement.

The violence in Socotra erupted months after the separatists declared self-rule in Yemen's south and seized control of the city of Aden, a bid that sparked fears of fresh chaos in a country already embroiled in five years of conflict.

More broadly, the standoff between the Emirati-funded separatists and Hadi’s Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government has threatened to unravel the partnership between the powerful regional allies, which are trying to oust the Iran-backed Houthi rebels from the country’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the north.

As tensions between the separatists and government security units escalated in Socotra in recent weeks, Saudi forces worked as intermediaries to restore calm to the island, which is home to many rare plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world. But on Friday, military officials in Socotra said, Saudi forces let the separatists go ahead with their incursion, stirring speculation about a new attempt at a deal between the Saudis and Emiriatis after months of infighting.

“We are seeing some sort of compromise between the Saudis and Emiratis that works against the local authorities,” said Ahmed Nagi, a nonresident Yemen expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Nagi said the cooperation could be a sign pointing to the government’s imminent dissolution. “Hadi’s government is weaker than ever before ... and the Saudis are losing faith, questioning why they are still investing so heavily in it,” he said.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, beset with their own problems, have recently sought to inch away from their costly war with the Houthi rebels, which has killed over 112,000 people since 2015. In April, Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral cease-fire, which was swiftly dismissed by the Houthis. Last summer, the UAE announced it was ending its role in the conflict, although it continues to wield influence through its proxies, such as the separatist group.

The secessionist council, which is an umbrella group of heavily armed and well-financed militias propped up by the UAE since 2015, hopes to restore an independent southern Yemen, which existed in 1967-1990.

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Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Los Angeles contributed to this report.