Fierce battle erupts as south Yemen's troops swoop to cut off northern forces

Fierce battle erupts as south Yemen's troops 
swoop to cut off northern forces

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 10 May 1994


THE outcome of the civil war in Yemen was finely balanced yesterday as northern and southern armies clashed in their bloodiest battle so far.

The northern forces under President Ali Abdullah Saleh again claimed the capture of Aden was 'imminent', while the southern Socialists, led by the dismissed vice-president, Ali Salem al-Baidh, said a northern brigade had been 'totally destroyed'.

Neither claim appeared true, and as more accurate details of fighting began to emerge it was clear that neither side had a decisive advantage. Southern air strikes, including Scud missiles attacks on northern cities, have had little military effect, and the most important developments have been on the ground and in the south.

After defeating a southern brigade at Dhamar last Wednesday, three northern brigades totalling 6,000 men pushed towards the coast east of Aden. They were aiming to link up with the Amaliqa brigade, which had been stationed at Zingibar since north and south Yemen united in 1990.

The thrust was intended to split the south, isolating the Socialists' political base, Aden, from the oil-rich province of Hadramawt to the east.

This risked over-stretching the northern forces' supply lines - or even having them cut by the Socialists. Moreover, President Saleh was unable to commit all his forces without leaving his northern territory exposed. He had to keep up to a third of his troops in reserve - to guard against insurrection or an attempted coup in Sana'a.

As the northern forces moved south, the Socialists sent 3,000 troops from Aden. There was a brief clash near al-Bayda on the old north-south border.

The Socialists retreated. They now say this was a ruse to encourage the northerners to rush south into a carefully-laid trap.

Once the northern forces had linked up with the Amaliqa brigade, the southerners encircled them. Large numbers of southern troops - previously held in reserve - poured in from the provinces of Shabwa and Hadramawt for the onslaught.

Yesterday, a fierce tank and infantry battle was raging in a small wadi near the beach, east of Zingibar. More than 30,000 men were ranged against each other in this confined space. The northern forces were repeatedly attacked by the south's air force, and were bombarded from the sea and by artillery from Aden and Zingibar.

Last night, northern forces claimed to have captured the strategic airfield at al-Anad, near Aden, and reached Dar Sa'ad, a village five miles from the city centre. It was not clear whether this (if true) was the start of a surprise offensive or a minor incursion aimed at diverting the Socialists' fire away from their forces further east.

President Saleh is seeking to reimpose unity on his country after nine months of political feuding which threatened to tear apart the four-year-old union of north and south. But he has failed to win the quick victory he needed and the conflict now threatens to drag on.

For the president, anything less than outright victory will amount to defeat, since it will have failed to restore unity. For the Socialists, however, anything that avoids total humiliation can be counted as a victory of sorts; they will have proved they cannot be eliminated from the political equation.

If the Socialists survive, they will be counting on diplomatic support from outside Yemen to help them establish their own state or autonomous region.

They have been nurturing relations with anyone who would listen to their grievances - especially the Kuwaitis and Saudis. President Saleh, by contrast, has few enthusiastic supporters in the Arab world except Saddam Hussein, whose media unhelpfully weighed in on his behalf yesterday.