By Mohammed Mukashaf
ADEN (Reuters) - Southern separatists clashed on Wednesday with presidential guards in Aden, the seat of Yemen's government, and three people were killed and nine injured, local officials and residents told Reuters.
The violence highlighted a rift within the Saudi-backed coalition battling the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in a more than four-year war that has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
The separatists and the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are nominally united in their battle against the Houthis.
But they have rival agendas for Yemen's future, and a missile strike in Aden last week that killed dozens of southern soldiers raised friction between them.
Just before Wednesday's clash, hundreds of separatist supporters attended a funeral for some of the southern soldiers and a prominent commander near the hilltop presidential palace.
As the crowd chanted anti-government slogans, shooting was exchanged with presidential guards.
Presidential guard Brigadier General Sanad al-Rahwa told Yemeni news outlet Masdar Online that his forces had clashed with armed groups trying to storm the presidential palace and central bank.
After the funeral, the vice-president of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), Hani Ali Brik, called on supporters to march on the palace and overthrow the government, but there was no sign such a march had begun.
Interior Minister Ahmed al-Mayssari said the government had so far practiced restraint to maintain stability in Aden but was "fully ready" to combat any actions targeting the state's institutions.
"We call on the Yemeni people not to respond to such calls as they only aim for war and only serve the Houthis," he said.
The United Nations' special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, expressed concern about the flare-up in Aden.
"I am alarmed by the military escalations in Aden today, including reports of clashes in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace. I am also deeply concerned by the recent rhetoric encouraging violence against Yemeni institutions," he tweeted.
A senior United Arab Emirates (UAE) official, Anwar Gargash, called for calm after the violence, which he described on Twitter as worrying. He said escalation between the two sides was not acceptable after attacks claimed by Islamic State and al Qaeda in southern Yemen in recent days.
The UAE supports the anti-Houthi coalition but also backs the southern separatists.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen said the only beneficiary of the violence was the Houthis.
The southern port city of Aden is the temporary home of Hadi's government, though he himself is in Saudi Arabia and the presidential palace is largely empty apart from soldiers.
Wednesday's fracas came after the STC on Tuesday alleged that an Islamist party that is an important ally of Hadi was complicit in last week's killing of the Security Belt soldiers.
Separatist commander Brigadier General Muneer al-Yafee was among those who died in the missile attack on the parade.
"The people of the south are all on the street. This is a movement by the people that cannot be stopped, except with the government's downfall," said one mourner, Abdelhakim Tabaza.
Warplanes were seen on Wednesday flying over Aden, where rivalries have brought violence in the past too. In January 2018, southern forces took control after two days of fighting, confining Hadi's government to the presidential palace.
After accusing the Islamist party Islah of involvement in Thursday's missile attack, the STC's Brik had on Tuesday said: "Do not blame our people if they take to the streets to demand the removal of this government from southern lands."
Islah is tolerated by Saudi Arabia but viewed with suspicion by the UAE.
(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Additional reporting by Samar Hassan in Cairo; Writing by Lisa Barrington and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)