state ready to fall
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in The Guardian, 6 July
THE breakaway 'Democratic Republic of Yemen' was on the brink of
collapse yesterday as the forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh pushed deep into the city
of Aden and captured the separatists' only other stronghold at Mukalla.
Southern troops appeared to abandon Aden's outer defences
as they prepared for street fighting in the historic Crater district, a natural citadel of
volcanic rock. Witnesses described them filling sandbags at the road junction leading to
Crater, while loudspeaker cars toured the almost deserted streets with the message: 'Your
city depends on you. Head to the positions of honour.' A government statement in Sana'a
claimed that northern forces had captured the airport, which lies between the Crater
peninsula and the modern city to the north and west. 'Our tanks are now near the Aden
hotel in the Khormaksar area,' the spokesman said.
Separatist leaders continued to deny the claim, but oil
industry sources in Aden confirmed that large numbers of northern tanks - possibly as many
as 50 - were well inside the city.
Most of Aden no longer has any formal defences, though
government forces may be entering slowly for fear of booby traps or defenders concealed in
buildings. A journalist who visited the battle front on the northern side at the weekend
said yesterday that two of his colleagues had walked from there into the city centre and
back out again without being stopped.
One resident said yesterday that 'fear, panic and
confusion' had gripped Aden during the morning as news spread that Mukalla, the Indian
Ocean port 400 miles to the east, had already fallen into northern hands.
Mukalla had been considered an alternative capital for the
breakaway state if Aden succumbed to the siege. It was the headquarters of Ali Salem
al-Baidh, leader of the Yemen Socialist Party and 'president' of the breakaway state. Mr
Baidh, who has not been seen for some time, is thought to have left for Abu Dhabi last
Northern forces found Mukalla undefended. An oil industry
source in the area said the separatists had left on Monday afternoon, taking tanks and
Scud missiles with them.
They were last seen heading eastwards towards al-Ghayda,
near the Omani border, 500 miles away. It was not clear why, since the move would take
their missiles out of range of any significant targets.
A number of southern MiGs and civilian aircraft belonging
to the southern airline, Alyemda, were reported to have arrived at the al-Ghayda airfield.
Later yesterday, a government spokesman in Sana'a
announced the capture of Riyan airport, six miles outside Mukalla, adding that 'a number
of southern warplanes were seized while on the ground'.
There was no independent confirmation, though Riyan's
capture would be of great military importance. Air power is the only area in which
southern forces have shown superiority.
Yesterday the foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria and Gulf
Arab states meeting in Kuwait were expected to discuss the situation in Yemen. It had been
suggested earlier that some of them would be pressing for recognition of the breakaway
state, but in the last few days that has become ever more unlikely.