Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Yemen offers talks with separtists

DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen, under international pressure to quiet domestic unrecst and focus its sights on al Qaeda, has offered to hold talks with southern separatists and hear their grievances, state media said on Tuesday. The move by President Ali Abdullah Saleh follows an escalation in violence on both sides in south Yemen that has left a trail of dead and wounded in recent weeks even as insurgent violence elsewhere in the country fades. 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. "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," 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. Pressure mounted on Yemen to concentrate its efforts on containing al Qaeda after the Yemen-based regional arm of the militant group claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane in December. Western allies and neighboring Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting instability on multiple fronts in Yemen, where 42 percent of the population lives in poverty, to recruit and train militants for attacks in the region and beyond. The offer for talks with separatists was not Saleh's first. Diplomats say previous such offers have not been followed by concrete action to address southern complaints that Sanaa neglects the southern region and treats southerners unfairly, including in property disputes, jobs and pension rights. Some southerners also complain that Saleh's ties to Saudi Arabia, Yemen's biggest donor, have led the president to tolerate inroads by the kingdom's puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. SHOW OF STRENGTH Yemen agreed last month to a truce with northern Shi'ite rebels to end a separate conflict there that had drawn in top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. Since that truce began, violence in the north has faded while clashes in the south escalated. Security forces have come down hard on separatist protests in recent weeks, and at least two demonstrators have been shot dead. Ensuing unrest sparked security sweeps that have netted 150-200 arrests and sparked sometimes deadly clashes. "They have to escalate before they start to negotiate," Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan said of the government. "This is their style of doing things. Show them you are strong. You can do things. Then you start to negotiate." But he added the sides were unlikely to achieve more than a brief "cooling down" from the conflict in the medium-term. "I think it will continue for a long time," he said. Saleh said Yemen would form committees to talk with the separatists. Analysts say the fractured nature of the movement, without a unified leadership, makes serious talks difficult. Analysts said they believed the government was close to reaching a temporary truce with one southern tribal leader in Abyan province, but said that did not mean tensions would subside in other parts of the south. Meanwhile, a series of recent ambushes on security targets blamed on separatists has raised worries that what has been mainly a peaceful protest movement has the potential to morph into an armed campaign. At least five people have been killed in the ambushes. In fresh violence, five gunmen in a car forced their way onto the premises of a government building and opened fire, killing a soldier, state media reported on Tuesday. They blamed separatists for the attack, which took place late on Sunday. Separately, Human Rights Watch urged Sanaa to use caution when targeting militants to avoid civilian casualties, citing a December air strike against al Qaeda in south Yemen that Sanaa later acknowledged had also killed more than 42 civilians. Yemen's operations against al Qaeda have been focused in several southern provinces where separatist sentiment against the government is also prevalent. "Civilian deaths in counterterrorism operations can have a strikingly counterproductive impact," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. has learned the hard way that such deaths can anger and alienate people who normally would not support groups such as al Qaeda," she said. (Additional reporting bvy Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Editing

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