The UAE is likely behind the killing of some 27 Islamic clerics who have been assassinated in Yemen over the past two years, the Washington Post reported yesterday.
The assassinations, which are taking place in southern capital city of Aden, are occurring in areas where the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) operates in an effort to form an independent state which directly opposes internationally backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
All the clerics were killed by "drive-by shootings or killed near their mosques" according to the Washington Post. As a survival strategy, the clerics have either fled Aden city, or restricted working hours in the mosques.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a US official said some elements of the STC were likely behind the killings. "Islah is really facing heavy pressure in Aden and elsewhere, both politically and security-wise," the official said. But Shalal Ali Shaiya, head of Aden's security and an official within the STC batted off the claims, blaming the opposition Islah party for the killings.
The STC claims that Islah are targeting the "moderate" clerics, to replace with more hard-line scholars and imams. However, some of the murdered clerics were advocating for a unified Yemen, in line with Hadi's objectives, while UAE-STC aligned militias favour secession for the southern Yemen.
"This is a carefully thought-through and orchestrated campaign," said Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group. "The people who are being targeted are outside the new mainstream in the south, which is pro-secession."
Last month, the Yemeni Ministry of Endowments called on the competent security authorities in the city of Aden to stand firmly against the assassination and acts of terrorism practiced against the city's clerics, Muslim scholars and imams.
The conflict in Yemen escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-Arab allies, including the UAE, launched a massive air campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi gains. The group had taken control of the capital, Sanaa, and large swathes of the country forcing the internationally backed government into exile.
But the UAE's foreign policy in Yemen is prominently focused in southern Yemen, where it supported the political set up of the STC, directly opposed to Hadi political vision.