Yemen separatists seize control of Socotra


A picture shows a view of the Yemeni island of Socotra, a site of global importance for biodiversity conservation in the north-western Indian Ocean, on March 27th, 2008. [Khaled Fazaa/AFP]

A picture shows a view of the Yemeni island of Socotra, a site of global importance for biodiversity conservation in the north-western Indian Ocean, on March 27th, 2008. [Khaled Fazaa/AFP]

Yemen's southern separatists on Saturday (June 20th) seized control of the strategic island of Socotra, further undermining the government, which is battling to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) entrenched in the north.

The move comes after Yemen's Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hadhrami on Thursday stressed the need to implement the power-sharing agreement signed in Riyadh between the Yemeni government and the separatists.

The island, located off the Horn of Africa about 350 kilometres from Yemen, lies close to important shipping routes, and with its unique flora and fauna, is sometimes referred to as "the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean".

It has largely been spared the violence that has ravaged mainland Yemen, where the Yemeni government and Arab coalition have been battling the Houthis for more than five years.

But in recent years, it has become a bone of contention in the anti-Houthi camp, which comprises the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and separatists trained by the UAE, a key member of the Arab coalition.

The fall of Socotra at the weekend deepens the crisis between the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Yemeni government after the failure of a power-sharing deal in areas beyond the control of the Houthis.

The STC, which declared autonomy in southern Yemen on April 26th, said it had already begun implementing self-rule on the island.

Military sources said STC fighters took control Saturday after an operation that began the day before, with only limited clashes with pro-government forces.

STC fighters had entered the capital Hadibo and established checkpoints there, they said.

The separatists, who are fiercely hostile to Islamist groups, said the pro-government forces based on the island were largely supporters of Al-Islah, an Islamist party allied with the internationally recognised government.

The UAE, which also has a zero tolerance policy towards Islamists, landed troops in Socotra in 2018, angering the government, which said the move was not justified as there were no Houthi forces present.

The flare-up, which highlighted the UAE's ambitions to strengthen its presence in Yemen and Africa, was defused when Saudi troops were deployed to the island and the Emirati forces withdrew.

'Full-fledged coup'

Socotra is famed for its unique and spectacular vegetation, including the Dragon's Blood Tree with its distinctive umbrella-shaped canopy and red sap.

Much of its plant life is found nowhere else on the planet, making it a site of global importance for biodiversity.

A Yemeni government spokesman accused the STC of mounting a "full-fledged coup" on the island, saying its fighters had targeted state institutions and raided military camps and government quarters.

In comments carried by local media, he urged the Arab coalition to stop the STC's "tampering, chaos and attacks" and compel them to implement the power-sharing deal signed in Riyadh last November.

Socotra's governor, Ramzy Mahrous, said the STC forces overthrew state institutions and then "raided" the city of Hadibo.

He said in a statement that the government and people have been "let down", and hit out at the "silence from those we are expecting to help us reach victory and stand by us".

The Arab coalition has yet to comment on the developments.

The separatists and the Yemeni government are technically allies in the fight against the Houthis, but the recent move threatens to reignite a "war within a war" in Yemen.

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