Southern Yemen demands split from north amid fears of fresh conflict: 'We will defend our lands'

As the UN votes to move monitors to flashpoint city of Hodeidah, southern Yemeni leaders demand an independent south, warning peace cannot be achieved if secession demands are ignored
Fighters from the separatist STC take control of a pro-government checkpoint in Khormaksar, north of Aden, in JanuaryFighters from the separatist STC take control of a pro-government checkpoint in Khormaksar, north of Aden, in January ( AFP/Getty )

Bel Trew,  Middle East Correspondent,

The leader of a growing independence movement in south Yemen has called for a split from the north and warned southerners would “defend” their lands militarily if ignored, igniting fears the country could face another civil war. 

Speaking to The Independent, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, president of the so-called Southern Transitional Council (STC), demanded an immediate referendum on the secession issue and urged the United Nations to address the “southern question” in future peace talks scheduled from next month.

The former governor of Aden said the STC was “extremely disappointed” it was excluded from recent UN-held peace talks in Sweden, which resulted in a tense truce between the Houthi rebels and the recognised Yemeni government.

Yemen, which was only unified in 1990, has been torn apart by a complex four-year war between the Iran-backed rebel group who control the capital, Sana’a, and the recognised government supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its Gulf allies.

The Sweden talks did not address the issue of southern independence, which has been simmering since fighters in the south, largely backed by the UAE,  took a leading role in the conflict.

Mr Zoubaidi warned that southern forces would defend their lands if they were not taken seriously, claiming the majority of the south wanted a return to independence, with the southern port city of Aden as their capital.

“The STC will aim to launch a dialogue with all Yemeni political parties and use all peaceful and democratic means to discuss the right of self-determination. The southern people have been struggling since 1991 to restore the legitimacy of our land,” he said. 

“We respect all UN laws and resolutions, we prefer dialogue over disagreements, but if that doesn’t happen we will defend ourselves and our land energetically. We are on the ground military and security wise, and we will defend our land with all means and options available.”

The STC was formed last summer from a faction of the so-called Southern Movement which since 2007 has been calling for and working on the separation of Yemen. Violence already flared in January when STC forces seized control of Aden, from the recognised Yemeni government that is temporarily based there.

Yemen has only been one country since 1990. Before then South Yemen was a Soviet-backed, independent socialist state until it agreed to unification with northern leader, the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Saleh’s administration, which was later toppled by a 2011 Arab Spring uprising, crushed the southern movement, which railed against what it said was the unfair distribution and allocation of Yemen’s oil wealth and continued political sidelining.

In 1994, central government forces brutally put down the last and final separatist rebellion.

But luck changed for the southerners with the Houthi takeover of the country in early 2015, which forced recognised Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies including the UAE launched a bombing campaign in March of the same year to reinstate Mr Hadi, fearing the encroachment of Iranian influence on their borders.

Southern forces, trained and armed by the Emiratis, were a crucial part of the troops that ejected the Houthis from Aden and corralled them into the north where they remain. 

Fighters in the south have also been integral in the battle against Al-Qaeda in Yemen as well as Isis and are key part of government forces in their latest offensive against the flashpoint city of Hodeidah.

Many fear ignoring the calls for southern succession will only undermine a tense truce, brokered earlier this month by the UN in Sweden, which is currently holding in the Red Sea port. The four-year war in Yemen has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in terms of numbers with over two-thirds of the country now relying on aid to survive. The UN said last week a staggering 20 million people could starve as the country teeters on the brink of one of the worst famines of our time. 

Hopes are resting on the Sweden ceasefire deal in which all sides have agreed to withdraw from Hodeidah, which would then be ruled by a joint local committee overseen by the UN.

On Friday the UN security council agreed to the deployment of UN monitors to the Red Sea port to observe the implementation of the ceasefire. The British-drafted resolution, the first on Yemen to be signed in three years, also endorses a prisoner exchange agreement, and a “statement of understanding” around the war-torn central city of Taiz. However, the issue of the south is also not mentioned. 

Mr Zoubaidi, who is based between Aden and the UAE, says now is the time to address the southern question as the UN’s envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is planning a fresh round of talks in January to finalise a long-term peace plan and lay out the future of the country.

The powerful political figure was initially the governor of Aden under President Hadi but was fired in April 2017 for his loyalty to the southern campaign, which had become increasingly frustrated with the recognised authorities. In January 2018, tensions reached breaking point when UAE-trained separatists seized control of Aden from forces loyal to Saudi-based President Hadi, throwing the anti-Houthi alliance into chaos.

Smoke rises from inside a military camp the day after fighters from the separatist STC took control of the pro-government position in the northern Dar Saad district of Aden in January (Photo: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images)

Although the fighting died down and a tense calm has held, the STC remains a powerful force in the port city. Their supporters and affiliated forces control key areas like the airport, and even the presidential compound.

Mr Zoubaidi suggested Mr Hadi remain as an interim president until a referendum on the issue of secession is held in the south.

“We are ready to launch negotiations with all parties and we have already informed Mr Griffiths. He said he had remained committed to end the disagreements between the warring parties,” he told The Independent.

“President Hadi has failed to listen to the people of Yemen and is unwanted.  He has no popularity in the south ... As far as the government is concerned, it is based in Aden but is unable to provide services and basic needs for people. It cannot play its role in any victory. Hadi’s project is not acceptable, neither in the north nor in the south.”

Yemen experts have long warned that ignoring the southern issue will undermine any attempt at long-term peace and, at worst, could see another conflict.

Adam Baron, visiting fellow of ICFR who specialises in Yemen, said even if further peace deals were negotiated between the Houthis and the authorities, there will be no stability until the southern question is answered. 

“This is one of the most important issues facing Yemen both today and yesterday and if it is not dealt with, it is going to facing Yemen for plenty of tomorrows,” he told The Independent. 

“This has already fuelled significant tension in Aden, if it not resolved, it does risk fuelling the outbreak of violence in the future.”

The tensions have piled pressure on the UAE, which has unfurled an impressive series of military bases across southern Yemen and supported the southerners with training.

A senior official from the Emirates told The Independent that the issue of a separate south needed to be resolved “under the aegis of the UN and other relevant international institutions”.

“It is not something that can by imposed by any party, internal or external. The UAE respects the collective wisdom of the Yemeni people in regard to all these contentious issues and will act always in accordance with its utmost respect for the sovereignty for Yemen,” the official added.

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