ADEN — Three days of bloody clashes left startled residents of the southern city of Aden in constant fear for their lives, until a tense calm returned on Thursday with the sky-blue chevron of the separatist flag flying over checkpoints across Yemen’s de facto capital.
“For three days, we saw death,” Awad Nasser said of the violence that tore through his neighbourhood where government forces clashed with separatists.
“The battle began right here in this neighbourhood,” Nasser told AFP in the coastal Jabal Hadid district.
“Our kids were screaming. We live on the third floor, and we were terrified [Saudi-led] coalition warplanes would intervene, so we rushed down the stairs to our neighbours’ on the first floor to take shelter.”
Three years after the army drove Houthi rebels out of Aden, an alliance between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government and southern leaders exploded into violence over accusations of corruption and neglect.
In a lightning takeover of the city, separatist forces wrested control of the interim capital from Yemen’s government in clashes that erupted on Sunday.
The separatists, led by the self-proclaimed Southern Transitional Council (STC), seized full control of the embattled government’s headquarters.
The power struggle opened a new front in a devastating civil war that has killed more than 9,000 people in three years and triggered what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
On Thursday, as calm returned to the city, envoys from Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are allies in the coalition backing Hadi, shuttled between the rival sides in a bid to end a tense standoff.
“The situation in Aden is now stable… Our goal today is the stability and security of Yemen,” said Saudi spokesman Major General Mohammed Bin Saeed Al Mughaidi.
Local security officials said UAE-trained elite forces known as the “security belt” and which back the STC had already taken over the city’s checkpoints.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says at least 38 people were killed and 222 wounded in the three days of clashes in which tanks and heavy artillery were deployed.
In central Aden’s Crater district — where ministers have been holed up in the presidential palace — dozens of homes were pockmarked with bullet holes.
Donia Hussein Farhan, a university student and Crater resident, recalled the day separatists forces closed in on the presidential palace, which they have surrounded.
“It was terrifying,” said the 22-year-old.
“There were people hit by shrapnel, civilians who have nothing to do with this fight. And there was no one to help them because the shelling was non-stop and the roads were closed,” she said.
“We lived in fear, in terror, and no one could figure out who was allied with who, and who was fighting who.”
“It reminded us of the Houthi takeover,” Farhan said, referring to the rebel seizure of Sanaa in 2014.
Crater district residents say they have been left without water supplies after pipes were hit in shelling, while in Khor Maksar district to the north, many said they feared food shortages.
“We were displaced from Sanaa to Aden, in search of safety, and we found ourselves in the middle of another war,” said Hana Dajran, a native of the Yemeni capital who fled when Houthi rebels overran Sanaa.
“I did not leave my hotel for three days because of the clashes. Food starts to become an issue… You end up drinking juice and making do with the basics.”
The violence in Aden has served as a stark reminder of the brutal power struggles that mark the history of Yemen — where, until 1991, the south and north were independent countries.