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Thousands of Yemenis rally in support of southern separatists in the Khormaksar district of Yemen's second city of Aden, on Aug. 15, 2019.NABIL HASAN/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of Yemenis rallied Thursday in the port city of Aden in support of southern separatists who seized the city from the country’s internationally recognized government amid diplomatic efforts aimed at reinstating forces loyal to the Saudi-backed president.

Yemeni military officials said a Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates commission arrived to monitor the withdrawal of separatist forces from government headquarters and military camps seized last week from President Abel Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s presidential guards after four days of fighting that left more than 70 people dead, including civilians.

Officials in Hadi’s camp said that forces loyal to the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which represents the separatists, had withdrawn from the presidential palace. Yet, they still remained in key positions in Aden, which has served as the seat of Hadi’s interim government since 2014.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the media.

But as their supporters rallied, separatist forces waged a series of attacks against Hadi’s forces and supporters, according to government statements, prompting the closure of some government agencies, including the Interior and Foreign Affairs ministries.

All flights run by Yemeni state-run airlines were diverted from Aden to Sayoun, some 720 kilometres (450 miles) away, leaving Sayoun the only airport under the control of Hadi’s government.

A top Yemeni commander, Mahran al-Qubati, told The Associated Press that UAE-backed forces raided his compound in Aden’s Dar Saad district, assaulting family members and taking computers and documents. He said in an interview via WhatsApp that the fighters caused panic among his children when they opened fire on his house and some family members were arrested.

Al-Qubati, a Hadi loyalist and commander of the presidential guards, escaped last week’s armed assault targeting his barracks but was wounded Thursday during fighting that ended with the UAE-backed forces seizing control of his compound. Photos he sent to the AP show bullet marks on the walls of his house and he urged the Hadi’s government to protect his family.

Late on Thursday the STC issued a statement affirming that its goal is to restore an “autonomous state of the south.”

Both the separatists and Hadi’s government are allies within a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting northern Yemen-based rebels, known as Houthis, since 2015.

The UAE is a key member of the coalition. However, it never threw its full support behind Hadi because of his ties to Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood group, a pan-Arab movement that many Arab countries, including UAE, consider to be a terrorist organization.

After the UAE-backed separatists seized control of Aden and kicked Hadi’s forces out of their camps, the Saudi-led coalition ordered an immediate ceasefire and threatened to bomb the separatists if they did not return to positions they held before the fighting.

It also called for the separatist movement and Hadi’s government to attend talks in Saudi Arabia without offering a date. The separatists said they would attend but they did not withdraw from the city and called on their supporters to take part in the protests Thursday.

Thousands of Yemenis had been bussed or driven by car from rural areas in southern Yemen to the rally in downtown Aden. They chanted “Oh Revolution of the South” and waved flags of the old state of South Yemen.

“(Hadi’s forces) won’t be able to come back again to the southern streets because we have suffered from them and their actions for many years. God willing, we will achieve victory,” said Youssef al-Kaeity, a pro-Southern Transitional Council activist present at the rally.

Yemen was split into two countries during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1994.

Ahmed Omar Bin Farid, a senior STC leader, hailed the rally as “a new beginning” for the people in the south and an opportunity to restart U.N.- brokered negotiations to address their political grievances.

“This is a spontaneous outpouring by the people,” Bin Farid wrote on Twitter. “These voices calling for inclusion in a political process and the legitimate demand of self-determination must be listened to.”

Bin Farid also stressed the separatists’ commitment to fight the Houthis alongside the Saudi-led coalition.

“We have been and will remain a close ally of (the Saudi-led) coalition and we always believe in the mission of thwarting the Iranian-Houthi project,” Bin Farid wrote.

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