UAE deploys troops to Yemeni island, imperiling alliance

CAIRO — Yemen's formal alliance with the UAE may be coming to an end after the latter deployed forces to a Yemeni island, without prior consultation with Yemen's exiled government, a senior Yemeni official said Saturday.

Over the past few days, the UAE has deployed some 300 soldiers, along with tanks and artillery, to the island of Socotra, which is recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, heightening tensions between the two allies.

"The government had no idea whatsoever," the official said.

The UAE is a major pillar in a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, under the banner of restoring the authority of self-exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The Emiratis, however, have carved out a zone of influence in southern Yemen over the past two years, setting up prisons and militias.

Emirati Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that the UAE has historic and family ties to Socotra. He posted his remarks on his official Twitter account on Friday, adding that amid the war in Yemen, "We will support (Socorta's residents), in stability, health care, education, and living (conditions)."

"The government is considering sending a letter to the United Nations demanding the dismissal of the Emiratis from the Yemeni intervention," the official told The Associated Press.

It was the Yemeni government that initially called on the U.N. to allow the Saudi-led coalition to intervene in Yemen in March 2015. U.N. Security Council resolution 2216, rooted in a letter sent by Hadi pleading for military intervention to protect Yemen from the Shiite rebel Houthis, gave legitimacy to the coalition's intervention.

Officials at Hadi's office said that the proposal was not welcomed by the president, who fears upsetting the Saudis. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The UAE's supporters in Yemen accuse the Islah party - the country's Muslim Brotherhood branch - of fueling media and public campaigns against the Emiratis, their stated foe. The Islah party is a major Hadi ally.

In Socotra, residents and activists said that the UAE is building a factory and a prison, recruiting the island's residents, and creating a new militia. It has been buying land and clearing it for construction. Some residents and activists fear damage to the island's environment, which has previously seen only limited development.

The official said that the Emiratis have taken over all the vital institutions in the island, including the airport, the ports, the government's headquarters, and kicked out the Yemeni forces. Direct flights have also been set up from Abu Dhabi to Socotra.

Saudi Arabia has sent a committee to mediate between the two sides, according to the official. However, the UAE deployed additional forces while the committee was on the ground, he added.

Asked if the government considers the UAE's actions a form of occupation, he said: "What else can we call this?"

Officials told the AP that the UAE has been eyeing Socotra, and other islands like Mayoun (Perim) in Bab al-Mandab, as well as ports along Yemen's southern and western coastline because of their strategic locations for both military and business interests. The UAE has bases in Assab in Eritrea and Somaliland (Horn of Africa). It has also set up small armies in southern Yemeni cities, with forces answering only to the UAE and not the internationally recognized government.

In one incident, Yemen transportation minister Saleh al-Jabwani was barred from entering a port in the southern province of Shabwa.

Socotra is located in the Gulf of Aden and has a unique ecosystem. Much of its plant life can't be found anywhere else in the world, most notably the strange Dragon Blood tree. The island has been listed by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site.

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Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Hajj in Sanna, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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