DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemen’s president, facing growing unrest in southern provinces even as violence elsewhere fades, has offered to hold talks with southern separatists and hear their grievances, state media said Tuesday.
North and South Yemen united in 1990 but many in the south — home to most of Yemen’s oil facilities — complain northerners have seized resources and discriminate against them, and violence in the south has escalated in recent weeks.
“We say to them: Come talk with your brothers in the authority, and we will talk with you. We extend the hand of dialogue without (you) having to resort to violence or blocking roads or raising the flag of separation,” President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in an address at a military academy.
“I am certain the flags of separation will burn in the days and weeks ahead. We have one flag we voted on with our free will. We welcome any political demands. Come to dialogue,” he said, according to the Defense Ministry’s online newspaper.
The offer followed repeated clashes between government troops and southern separatists that left a trail of dead and wounded on both sides in recent weeks, as protests escalated and authorities rounded up scores of southern activists.
Diplomats say previous offers for dialogue have not been followed by concrete action to address southern complaints that Sanaa neglects the region and treats southerners unfairly, including in property disputes, jobs and pension rights.
Some southerners also complain that Saleh’s ties to neighboring Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s biggest donor, have led the president to tolerate inroads by the kingdom’s puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.
Yemen became a major Western security concern after the Yemen-based regional arm of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in December.
Yemen agreed a truce with northern Shi’ite rebels last month to end a separate conflict there that had drawn in neighboring oil exporter Saudi Arabia. The truce followed international pressure on Yemen to focus on a bigger global threat: Al Qaeda.
Since that truce began, violence in the north has faded while clashes in the south escalated. Analysts say Sanaa is also using the Al Qaeda battle cry to turn its sights on other domestic opponents.
Saleh, who has made similar offers before for talks with the southern movement, said Yemen would form committees to negotiate with the separatists.
But the fractured nature of the southern movement, without a unified leadership, makes serious talks difficult.
Western allies and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting instability in Yemen, where 42 percent of the country’s 23 million people live in poverty, to recruit and train militants for attacks in the region and beyond.