RIYADH (Reuters) - Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and southern separatists signed an agreement on Tuesday to end a power struggle in the south of Yemen that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince hailed as a step toward a wider political solution to end the multifaceted conflict.
The stand-off had opened a new front in the more than four-year-old war and fractured a Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthi movement that ousted the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from the capital, Sanaa, in the north in late 2014.
Saudi Arabia’s envoy to Yemen told reporters that the pact, reached after more than a month of indirect talks in the kingdom, would see the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) join a new cabinet along with other southerners and all armed forces would be placed under government control.
“This agreement will open, God willing, broader talks between Yemeni parties to reach a political solution and end the war,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a televised signing ceremony in Riyadh.
U.S. President Donald Trump praised the agreement on Twitter: “A very good start! Please all work hard to get a final deal.”
Riyadh has been trying to resolve the stand-off to refocus the coalition on fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi movement on its southern border.
Separatist forces, supported by Riyadh’s main coalition partner the United Arab Emirates, are part of the Sunni Muslim alliance that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthis who hold Sanaa and most big urban centers.
But the STC, which seeks self-rule in the south and a say in Yemen’s future, turned on Hadi’s government in August, seizing its interim seat in the southern port of Aden and trying to extend its reach in the south.
The deal, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, calls for the formation of a new cabinet of no more than 24 ministers within 30 days that would have equal representation for northerners and southerners. STC would join any political talks to end the war.
Military and security forces from both sides, including tens of thousands of UAE-backed STC forces, would be placed under the defense and interior ministries.
To pave the way for the deal, Emirati forces last month left Aden for home, handing control of the port city and other southern areas to Saudi Arabia.
United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths, who is trying to restart talks to end a war that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine, said the deal was an important step in peace efforts.
“Listening to southern stakeholders is important to the political efforts to achieve peace in the country,” he said in a tweet.
The ceremony was attended by the UAE’s de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, along with Hadi and STC leader Aidarous al-Zubaidi.
The Aden crisis exposed a rift between Saudi Arabia and its main Arab ally the UAE, which started reducing its presence in Yemen in June as Western allies, including some that provide the coalition with arms and intelligence, pressed for an end to a war that has killed tens of thousands.
April Longley of think-tank International Crisis Group said the agreement could be positive but it was too early to tell.
“In a best-case scenario, it will put the lid on violence and open the way to more inclusive Yemeni negotiations in which southern separatists, who are an important component on the ground, are also present,” she said.
Reporting by Marwa Rashad; writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood