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Who is responsible for the new wave of killings in Aden?

It's hard to determine which side or sides are behind the latest wave of killings as a new round of military escalation looms in Yemen’s south, which has seen skirmishes in Abyan province between the two partners of the Saudi-led coalition.
Police troopers are seen during their deployment near the Aden port in Aden, Yemen November 16, 2019. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman - RC2FCD9926V0

SANAA, Yemen — While Yemen’s southern city of Aden had been witnessing relative calm after separatists took control of the city in August, that changed after the Riyadh Agreement was signed Nov. 5 between the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) as a new wave of killings engulfed the city. 

The killings intensified in early December, not long after Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed returned from Riyadh to Aden on Nov. 18, under the terms of the Riyadh Agreement, and STC President Aidarous al-Zubaidi arrived in Aden on Nov. 29.

According to local Arabic news reports, southern Yemen, particularly Aden, witnessed from Dec. 1 to Dec. 8 about 10 killing operations, including three failed attempts, amid the deterioration of security and stability in the city.

The latest incident took place Dec. 12, when unknown gunmen killed two Yemeni soldiers in an ambush in the southeastern province of Shabwa, which neighbors Aden. 

The wave of killings started Dec. 1 when unknown masked gunmen shot dead the director of the Criminal Investigation Agency, Maj. Salah al-Hujaili, in front of his home in the Mansoura district of Aden. The agency is affiliated with the Yemeni Ministry of Interior. Although no group claimed responsibility for the assassination, a journalist close to Hadi’s government, Adel al-Hassani, accused the UAE-backed STC of killing Hujaili, who had threatened to reveal details about UAE secret prisons. However, an STC source told Al-Monitor that Hujaili supported the STC. 

Hujaili had survived an assassination attempt in January 2016 that involved the use of an improvised explosive device planted in his car in Aden. No side claimed responsibility for the attack back then. 

Aref al-Yafee, a political analyst based in Kuwait, told Al-Monitor that the return of the killings "is linked to the conflict between the disputing parties in Aden, namely [forces loyal to] the government in the city’s northern parts, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood’s arm in Yemen [Islah Party] on the one hand, and the STC in the southern parts of the city on the other.” 

The UAE has designated the Islah Party as a terrorist group. Meanwhile, the STC accuses the Islah Party of participating in the 1994 war with fighters and religious fatwas that brought about destruction and the looting of property.

Other incidents in Aden saw the killings of six people, including commanders, soldiers and citizens. Among those killed was Capt. Mohammed Saleh, a security commander in the Security Belt Forces, the STC’s armed wing, who was shot dead by gunmen near his house in Mansoura district. It was the only operation the Islamic State claimed responsibility for.

There have been conflicting reports about which side the victims belong to, except for Saleh. 

Yafee said he thinks these killings aim “to empty Aden of the security and military cadres, specifically those supporting the STC.”

“In fact, there is more than one player in this; there are several forces that target the security and stability of Aden,” said Mansour Saleh, deputy head of the Information Service at the STC. Mansour Saleh, who is based in the UAE, said, “These forces are not only local, but also regional, which have paid a lot of money for the purpose of disrupting stability.”

“We mainly believe — through indications — that part of the government stands behind the assassinations that targeted special elements belonging to the STC,” Mansour Saleh told Al-Monitor in a WhatsApp voice message.

In all of the killings in Aden, the perpetrators fled the scene of the crime on motorcycles; this caused local authorities in the city to beef up security measures across the city Dec. 10, including banning the use of motorcycles and the carrying of weapons.

Reyah al-Sharq, a Yemeni Twitter user, said Dec. 9 that the deteriorating security situation in Aden is not new but has been the case for the past four years. “The [only] new thing in the matter is the resurgence of killings in a systematic method that suggests political parties ... in Aden are to blame!” he added in a tweet.

“The security of Aden must not be tampered with for [personal gains] and to evade the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement,” tweeted Lutfi Shatara, a member of the STC's presidency.

The Saudi failure to implement the main item of the Riyadh Agreement — that is, the creation of a 24-member Cabinet within 30 days — may make the deal invalid. Meanwhile, Saudi forces that have recently deployed in Aden have been unable to establish security amid reports of clashes in neighboring Abyan province between government and separatist forces.

“The real role of Saudi forces in Aden is to supervise, organize, coordinate, monitor and force local security forces to carry out their assigned tasks,” Yafee said.

On Dec. 5, local sources in Abyan said STC forces and pro-government forces loyal to the Islah Party sent reinforcements into the province, sparking clashes between the two sides. Two people were killed and others injured, according to the Xinhua news agency.

STC spokesman Nizar Haitham on Dec. 5 accused Hadi’s government of deviating from the Riyadh Agreement while saying the STC had “complete commitment” to the content of the pact.

In remarks run Dec. 6 by the official news agency Saba, government spokesman Rajeh Badi held the STC responsible for the latest escalation in Abyan, accusing it of seeking to abort the Riyadh Agreement.

Badi, who denied that there was a government mobilization of forces toward Aden, said the troops that moved from Marib to Abyan heading toward Aden belong to the first brigade of the Presidential Protection Unit. The Riyadh Agreement provided for this unit's complete return to Aden in coordination with the Saudi-led coalition. The Presidential Protection Unit consists of forces tasked with protecting the presidential palace in Aden. They were forced to withdraw from Aden in August after separatists took over the city. 

However, Mansour Saleh said, “It's not true [that the forces moved in coordination with the coalition]. It is an attempt by the party controlling the government — the Muslim Brotherhood to which the government spokesman belongs — to circumvent the [Riyadh] agreement.”

The STC spokesman added, “Under the terms of the Riyadh Agreement, it was agreed last week that a military unit [of the Presidential Protection Unit] would return to protect al-Masheeq [the presidential palace in Aden].” But he said the Islah Party tried to take advantage of this particular item of the Riyadh Agreement by pushing a large number of its groups in Marib toward Aden, claiming they belonged to the presidential protection brigade. “But the fact is that they are from the northern forces [Islah Party] in a clear violation of the Riyadh Agreement,” Saleh said. He added that the STC informed the coalition of this violation, which in turn ordered that these forces in Shuqra city of Abyan province halt until their identity is confirmed.

On Dec. 6, Hassani released a photo of a secret document revealing that the Saudi-led coalition issued a communique demanding that the Presidential Protection Unit that was heading toward Aden return to Shuqra, threatening to strike the unit's troops if they did not turn back.

However, in an interview with UAE's The National, Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister Salem al-Khanbashi said recent brief skirmishes in the south and delays in implementing some terms of the agreement will not undermine the pact signed in Riyadh.

Khanbashi, who signed the agreement on behalf of the government, added, “The agreement is a road map for structural reforms in the state’s system. It will also bring together the southerners ahead of a comprehensive settlement in the country and against our common enemy, the Houthis.”

In light of all these factors, it appears that the STC remains attached to its popular demand for independence and that any agreement with the government will be used as a maneuver in the way forward to achieve secession. It seems both sides that signed the agreement are keeping the military option on the table, while Saudi Arabia tries to unite them to fight against its main enemy, the Houthi rebels.

Several activists and citizens expressed divergent views on a question journalist Wadee Mansour posted on Twitter: “Is the security situation in Aden actually deteriorating or [is it just] exaggerated. If yes, who bears responsibility?”

“The situation is almost deteriorating, and the one responsible for that is first, Saudi Arabia, and second, the STC,” Hani Qahtan said, alleging that it is the legitimate government that holds responsibility.

“The situation was better before the Riyadh Agreement,” Hassani tweeted. “After the agreement, there have been assassinations, criminal accidents, land dispute problems, an increase of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and above all a great deterioration of services as if the Riyadh Agreement was born to die in Aden!"

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