CAIRO — Yemen’s government accused the United Arab Emirates of bombing its troops on Thursday as they tried to retake the southern city of...

CAIRO — Yemen’s government accused the United Arab Emirates of bombing its troops on Thursday as they tried to retake the southern city of Aden from Emirati-backed separatists.

At least 25 soldiers were killed and 150 wounded in the airstrikes on Thursday morning, a government commander said by phone from the scene of the attack. Warplanes had struck the same position 14 hours earlier but inflicted no casualties, the commander added.

The attack came weeks after the Emirati-backed rebels ousted the Saudi-backed Yemeni government from Aden and widens the rift between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which are allies in Yemen’s war.

The Yemeni information minister, Moammar al-Eryani, condemned the “treacherous” Emirati attack, which he said had killed a total of 40 soldiers and civilians.

In a statement, the Emirati Foreign Ministry said its forces carried out the attack against “terrorist elements” in retaliation for two soldiers who were wounded during fighting at Aden airport on Wednesday.

The statement made no reference to the Yemeni government and said the Emiratis reserved the right to strike in self-defense.

The development was a confounding twist to Yemen’s chaotic, multisided conflict. Until a few weeks ago, the Emiratis were nominally fighting alongside the internationally recognized Yemeni government that their warplanes bombed on Thursday.

More broadly, the attack threatened to escalate quiet tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, powerful regional allies who have acted in lock step for years across a swath of the Middle East’s most volatile countries, including Yemen, Libya and Sudan.

The Emiratis and Saudis have been leading the fight in Yemen since 2015, when the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, sent troops to oust the Iran-backed Houthis from northern Yemen. But that partnership came under sudden pressure in July after the Emiratis suddenly withdrew most of their forces from Yemen.

The Emirati drawdown left the Saudis in charge of southern Yemen, where infighting between fractious Yemen allies quickly spiraled into open war. In early August, the Emirati-backed separatists, who are fighting for independence for southern Yemen, seized control of Aden and dislodged forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is based in Saudi Arabia.

Some experts said the airstrike on Thursday was unlikely to cause irreparable damage to the Saudi-Emirati relationship.

“Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are not splitting up,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Abu Dhabi, in an email. “The alliance is too important for both countries. But that doesn’t meant they will always agree.”

ImageSeparatist fighters in Aden on Thursday. The separatists seized control of the southern Yemeni city this month.
CreditNabil Hasan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Their disagreements are most pronounced in Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis have different allies, interests and views on how to end a ruinous conflict that has pushed the impoverished country to the brink of famine.

The Emiratis want to pivot toward peace talks with the Houthis while maintaining pressure on pockets of Al Qaeda militants in southern Yemen, Ms. Dickinson said. The Saudis favor ramping up the fight against the Houthis, who continue to fire rockets at airports and oil fields in southern Saudi Arabia.

“What we may see going forward is a consistent alignment on the headline of policy, with a growing divergence in the details,” she said.

As ever in Yemen, local armed groups are doing most of the ground fighting.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hadi’s government forces mounted a concerted drive to recapture Aden from the separatists, first seizing the nearby city of Zinjibar and then pushing into the outskirts of Aden.

The government troops quickly claimed to have captured Aden’s airport, the main port of entry into Yemen by air, and the presidential palace, where Mr. Hadi’s notoriously weak government has been officially based since 2015.

But the separatists regrouped in a matter of hours and, with the help of reinforcements, regained the upper hand. By Wednesday evening they had recaptured the Aden airport and on Thursday morning were back in control of Zinjibar, where residents reported widespread looting of government buildings and abandoned military bases.

In a rare statement on Thursday evening, Mr. Hadi said the government had withdrawn its forces from Aden to prevent the city from being destroyed. He urged Saudi Arabia to rein in the Emiratis, whom he accused of seeking to divide Yemen, and called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn the bombings.

Doctors Without Borders, which runs a trauma hospital in Aden, said it received 51 wounded people in the space of a few hours on Thursday, including 10 who were dead on arrival.

“It’s total chaos here,” said Caroline Seguin, a manager with Doctors Without Borders, in a statement from Aden. It was the third influx of wounded people into the hospital in as many weeks, she said, adding: “At this point it’s difficult to establish which groups control which of Aden’s neighborhoods.”

Beyond those immediate casualties, it was unclear how great a strain the fighting had placed on the Saudi-Emirati alliance, which has bankrolled much of the fighting in Yemen since 2015, or what it might mean for the broader direction of the war.

Until recently the two countries played distinctly different roles. Saudi warplanes were prominent in the notorious air campaign, which was fought with American bombs and logistical help until last November, and resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. The Emiratis led the ground campaign in southern Yemen, particularly around the key port city of Hudaydah.

But the Emiratis have been suspicious of Mr. Hadi’s government, and came to view the separatists, formally known as the Southern Transitional Council, as more effective allies.

Under intense international pressure, and amid worries that Yemen was on the brink of a major famine, the Emiratis halted the assault on Hudaydah last December. Since then the United Nations has been trying to implement a stalled peace deal in Hudaydah and pave the way for a negotiated end to the fighting.

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