Rebel Yemeni state ready to fall

Rebel Yemeni state ready to fall

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 6 July 1994


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 week.

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.