Seven months after rebel fighters from the Iranian-allied Houthi
militia were driven out of the strategic southern port, there are
almost daily assassinations of judges, security officials and
Since July, the Gulf coalition and local security forces have
struggled to impose order in Aden, opening the way for Islamic
State, al Qaeda and other armed groups to operate there with
The challenges in Aden show how difficult it will be to restore
order to a country gripped by months of conflict in which 6,000 have
been killed and where Islamist militants have exploited widespread
security weaknesses in what Saudi Arabia sees as its backyard.
In Aden's Mansoura district, al Qaeda have clashed in the streets
with local security forces. Four Yemeni soldiers and three civilians
were killed in heavy clashes overnight between security forces and
suspected Islamist militants in old Mansoura, a local official said
Residents reported that the area was rocked by blasts as aircraft
believed to belong to the Arab coalition flew above, and the
gunbattles set ablaze a newly-built mall.
The local official said dozens of gunmen belonging either to Islamic
State or al Qaeda are thought to be holed up in the neighborhood
among hundreds of civilians.
A Reuters witness described a tense scene in the neighborhood as
residents stayed in their homes for their safety and armed militants
walked the streets. Residents said a family of four including two
little girls were killed when an errant RPG crashed into their
apartment as they were sleeping.
The Saudi-led coalition launched military operations this year to
prevent the Houthis, whom Riyadh sees as a proxy for its enemy Iran,
from taking control of Yemen after they seized much of the north.
For their part, the Houthis deny backing from Tehran and accuse the
coalition of launching a war of aggression.
Continuing violence in Aden, the biggest prize yet won by President
Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen's 10-month-old civil war, threatens
to undermine the campaign waged on his behalf by the coalition
against the Houthis and army units loyal to former president Ali
"If we leave the situation as it is, you will have the situation you
have in Libya," coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri
said, referring to the situation in Yemen as a whole.
A lot of people who oppose the Houthis would form their own
militias, he said, and Islamic State would also see an opportunity.
"There will be a chaotic situation. So I think when we start
something we have to finish it, by bringing back security and
stability to Yemen," Asseri told Reuters.
PATCHWORK OF RIVAL GROUPS
Islamist militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have
mounted operations in southern Yemen, including Aden, for years.
But the pace of attacks in Aden has accelerated since July, when
local forces backed by Hadi's government and the Saudi-led alliance
recaptured the city from the Houthis after months of street
fighting, but have seemingly failed to secure it.
Aden residents blame the attacks on Islamist militants, including
the Yemeni wing of Islamic State, who appear to be present in the
city. But in reality, it is impossible to know who is responsible,
given the number of armed groups in Aden and the authorities'
failure to investigate.
The coalition and Aden's security forces suspect that Saleh and
loyalist fighters are orchestrating the violence to derail any
progress in Aden. Saleh, ousted after Arab Spring protests in 2011
and whose exact whereabouts are unknown, denies such accusations.
In December alone, the governor of Aden, a colonel in the southern
secessionist movement that seeks independence from Yemen, and a
senior militia leader fighting alongside the government, were all
killed. Three senior southern Yemeni officials narrowly escaped a
car bomb attack in January.
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Regardless of who is behind the attacks, stabilizing Aden is a
priority for the Saudis, not only to counter Islamist militants, but
to show that Riyadh's aggressive intervention to stop what it sees
as Iranian expansionism is working.
"Restoring some modicum of security to Aden remains a - if not the -
key challenge facing the coalition and their allies in Yemen," Adam
Baron, a Yemen specialist with the European Council of Foreign
Relations, told Reuters.
"While it's certainly not an insurmountable one, it's proven -
unsurprisingly - difficult, owing to the myriad of differing
factions and a significant influx of arms, to say nothing of the
widespread destruction and dissolution of order owing to months of
The International Crisis Group said that after nearly a year of
combat, no side is close to a decisive military victory.
"Neither is defeated or exhausted; both believe they can make
additional military gains; and neither has been willing to make the
compromises required to end the violence," it said in a report.
BATS OF DARKNESS
Spooked by the attacks in Aden, one southern secessionist activist
said he had moved to Sanaa, which is under Houthi control.
"In Aden, if you leave your home, you can't guarantee that you will
return safely," said Fahmy, who declined to have his full name
published out of fear for his safety.
Extremists can shoot at people in shops, in the market where the
drug qat is sold, or while they are traveling in their cars, he
East of Aden, al Qaeda militants have taken control of entire towns,
meeting little resistance before displaying their black flags and
setting up checkpoints.
Even Hadi, who fled Aden last year when the Houthis overran the
city, never ventures too far from home since returning to his
temporary capital in November.
In late January, a suicide car bomb targeted a security checkpoint
near the gate of the palace where he lives, killing at least six
people, in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
Aden's security directorate has blamed attacks in recent weeks on
the "bats of darkness", groups it says are affiliated to
intelligence services and armed gangs loyal to Saleh and the
Houthis, rather than Islamic State.
Saudi-led coalition spokesman Asseri also said attacks ostensibly
claimed by Islamic State in Yemen are really the work of Saleh and
his loyalists to make it appear that the government is unable to run
In the meantime, Aden residents say coalition forces, mostly troops
from the United Arab Emirates, are rarely seen on the streets. Many
in the city doubt the security situation will improve anytime soon.
"We never think we won't be targeted," said Salah Saqladi, a
"The coalition has been weak to a large extent," he said. "There are
many coalition troops in Aden and the suburbs, but they're all in
their bases and haven't spread out on the streets."
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashef in Aden and Angus
McDowall in Riyadh; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by William
Maclean and Giles Elgood)
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