SANAA, Yemen – On a rocky hill overlooking the Arabian Sea in the city of Aden sits the palace of Yemen's internationally recognized president. It's one of the few safe places in the country for him and his government, protected by troops at the gates, artillery and truck-mounted machine guns in the surrounding mountains and ships at sea.
The rest of the southern city remains unstable. Only a 10 minute drive from the palace, a suicide bomber struck days ago at the Sawlaban military base, killing 52 soldiers. It was the fourth time militants have hit the base in the past six months. The last strike was only about a week earlier. All told, the attacks have killed more than 180 people.
The bombings underscore how President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his main backer, the Saudi-led coalition, have failed to bring stability to the southern territories that his government controls in the civil war with Shiite Houthi rebels. Yemen's second largest city and once its commercial hub, Aden was intended to be a model of Hadi's legitimacy.
Instead it has become a sign of Yemen's woes. Multiple armed groups compete for influence, chief among them a force known as the Security Belt, created and funded by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and their allies. Commanded mainly by Muslim ultraconservatives, it has been accused by critics of heavy-handed methods, abusing opponents and resisting Hadi's authority. On Friday, the governor of a neighboring province said fighters from the groups fired on his car as he tried to visit Hadi's palace for prayers.
Aden was where Hadi's government made its last stand after the Houthis and allied troops loyal to a former president overran the capital Sanaa in 2014, took over much of the north and stormed south. Hadi was forced to flee the country, and a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched its intervention in March 2015, preventing Aden from falling. By July of that year, coalition-backed southern fighters pushed the rebels out of much of the south.
Hadi's government hoped the restoration of Aden would mark the beginning of the end for the Houthis. But 18 months later, the rebels still control Sanaa and much of the north, while security remains elusive in the south. Hadi moves back and forth between Aden and the Saudi capital Riyadh, most recently arriving in the Yemeni city in late November.
Suicide bombings and assassinations, mostly by al-Qaida and the Islamic State group's local affiliate, regularly target top military and government officials, army recruits and senior Muslim clerics. Aden's governor and security chief were assassinated last year. In October 2015, the then-prime minister and his entire Cabinet came under attack by suicide bombers at a five-star hotel in the heart of the city.
Aden residents have burned tires and blocked roads in protests against fuel shortages, power cuts, delayed salaries and a lack of services. Others hold demonstrations demanding that southern Yemen, which was independent until 1990, secede again.
"The general scene is foggy and we live in fear," said Shakeb Rageh, a reporter at Aden's radio station. "The explosions are terrifying people here."
Hadi relocated the Central Bank to Aden in September, enabling his government to pay salaries for the first time in nearly four months.
But remnants of the army, police, and intelligence agencies under his Interior Ministry remain poorly equipped and trained. Courts, judges, prosecutors, and policemen have not returned to work out of fear for their safety. The groups of local fighters known as Hirak, who fought off the Houthis, have fragmented after Hadi's promises to integrate them into the army failed to materialize.
The Security Belt force, created by the Saudi-led coalition, presents itself as the new powerhouse to bring security in the absence of state institutions. The force is made up of some 15,000 southern fighters deployed across four provinces and mainly commanded by hard-line Muslims known as Salafis.
Nabil al-Washoush, the Belt's top commander, told the Associated Press that his force receives funds directly from the Saudi-led coalition. Still, he said it answers to "our guardian president," Hadi, and his Interior Ministry. He said eventually the force will be integrated into the ministry, but for now its mission is to provide "support" to the security apparatus.
The head of the force's operations room, Hussein Saleh, said the fragmentation of official security bodies created lawlessness that made the Belt necessary.
"The state institutions are not back, there is no budget, and Islamic militants are from within our own people, not outsiders," he said.
Security officials close to the interior minister said the government has been trying to get all the armed groups under its command but is facing resistance from the Security Belt. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Hadi supporters also see the creation of the Belt as part of tensions between the president and the UAE, which helps finance the force. Earlier this year, Hadi removed a prime minister, Khaled Bahah, who was backed by the Emirates. Hadi also installed a powerful military commander, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood's Yemeni wing, as vice president, further straining ties with the UAE, which is a fierce opponent of the Brotherhood.
Local media report killings and unlawful detentions by the Belt. Al-Washoush denied the claims and accused rivals of trying to "poison" the force's relationship with the community.
On Friday, the governor of Abyan province, neighboring Aden, said Security Belt fighters shot out his car's tires as he headed toward Hadi's palace to join the president in Friday prayers. Al-Khidr al-Saidi said the fighters at a checkpoint detained six of his guards, contending that they had not been informed of the governor's visit.
Belt fighters at checkpoints often detain and harass anyone believed to be from the north, said Rageh, the radio reporter.
A bus driver coming from Sanaa said he was beaten by fighters from the Belt on Sunday when they stopped and searched his bus and its passengers at a checkpoint at the entrance to Aden. The driver spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety.
He said the fighters were abusive with the passengers, then beat him, wounded a friend's hand and then detained them both. At first, he said, they were kept inside tankers on the side of the road, where the guards beat them more. Then they were moved to a tiny cell near the checkpoint where 30 people were being held, mostly northerners, he said.
After they were released, the hospital refused to give him a medical report out of fear of the Security Belt, he said.
Ali al-Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Hirak fighters, said that the Security Belt doesn't recognize the government's authority.
"They think that they live in a different country with a different president."
Michael reported from Cairo.