AS if the coronavirus pandemic was not enough for a battered world to deal with, the very real threat of war in the Middle East moved a step closer yesterday.

It came with the announcement that separatists in Yemen have declared their takeover of the country’s southern provinces and have initiated a state of emergency.

The announcement of self-rule – in effect a unilateral declaration of independence – came from the Southern Translation Council (STC) who are in control of the region’s key port city Aden, temporarily the capital of Yemen and once the centre of a former British colony.

The move could cause a split between Saudi Arabia and its allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In the complex situation within the war-torn country, the STC had been backing the internationally recognised government supported by the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition, but on Saturday the STC said it would now go it alone and control the south of the country with backing from the UAE.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are normally close allies and both have assisted the Yemeni government in their five-year-old battle with the Houthi rebels who are alleged to have the support of Iran in their bid to overthrow the government.

South Yemen was once a separate country before unification with the north in 1990, and the groups wanting a new separation of the south formed an uneasy alliance with President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2016 to stop the Houthis capturing Aden.

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With Saudi help, the STC forced the Houthi rebels out of much of the south thus allowing Aden to become the temporary seat of Mr Hadi’s cabinet.

The new split is against the spirit and letter of the Riyadh Agreement signed last November between Hadi and the STC. The agreement was supposed to kickstart the peace process for the whole country but now appears to have fallen at practically the first hurdle.

Yemen’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Al-Hadhrami said in a statement: “The announcement by the so-called transitional council of its intention to establish a southern administration is a resumption of its armed insurgency ... and an announcement of its rejection and complete withdrawal from the Riyadh agreement.”

While the STC and the Hadi government are in dispute, the main war in Yemen could flare up again. It is often seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabi and Iran, and experts yesterday predicted that the Houthis may take advantage of this new split to ratchet up their conflict which is now in its fifth year.

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Tens of thousands of Yemenis are since believed to have been killed and injured in the conflict, while 14 million are at risk of starvation, according to the UN, out of a population of 24 million.

The UN say they are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection, including up to ten million who rely on food aid to survive.

Medical experts fear that Covid-19 is on its way to Yemen and could end up killing hundreds of thousands in a country whose health infrastructure has been devastated by the conflict.

In response to the UN, a ceasefire started on Friday, but the Houthis have not accepted the truce and violence has continued.

Yesterday STC Vice-President Hani Ali Brik accused the Hadi government of hampering the agreement. On Twitter, he spoke against Hadi’s government of mismanagement and corruption, charges it denies.