Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said his country was ready to begin talks with northern Shiite insurgents, but will not negotiate with rebels with separatist demands.
REUTERS - Yemen is ready to hold conditional dialogue with northern Shi’ite insurgents and will listen to grievances, but will not talk to rebels with separatist demands, Yemen’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Battles between the Yemeni army and northern Shi’ite insurgents based in Saada, who complain of political, economic and religious discrimination, have killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands since war first broke out in 2004.
“There are conditions the government has laid out for dialogue with those carrying weapons in Saada. If they accept them, they can put their demands forward and they will be addressed,” Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said in Cairo.
“There will never be dialogue with those calling for separation,” he added, speaking after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, fear the conflict in Yemen’s northern provinces and a separatist movement in the south will enable al Qaeda to establish a stronger foothold in the Arabian Peninsula state.
Some Arab countries including Egypt also fear Shi’ite power Iran could gain influence in Yemen through the Shi’ite rebels. Iran has denied involvement.
“The leadership in Yemen opens the door for dialogue with all factions under the umbrella of unity of Yemen ... on condition this dialogue is Yemeni and in Yemen,” Qirbi said, speaking on the day a Yemeni court sentenced 10 rebels to death.
Fighting intensified in north Yemen in August when the army launched Operation Scorched Earth. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has said he is ready to fight the rebels for years if necessary.
The government has portrayed the conflict as an effort by extremists of the Zaydi Shi’ite sect to re-establish the cleric-ruled state, or “Imamate” in religious parlance, that fell in 1962 leading to the creation of the Yemeni republic.
A Yemeni Shi’ite rebel leader last month denied that insurgents want to set up a Shi’ite state in the north.
Yemen offered a conditional truce in August, which rebels rejected. The conditions required rebels to return captured military and civilian equipment, hand over those behind the June kidnapping of nine foreigners and to refrain from intervening in local authority affairs.
The well-armed rebels, operating in rugged mountainous terrain, are led by Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, whose group embodies a revivalist strand of the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam.
Zaydis make up about a third of Yemen’s population of about 23 million people. The majority of Yemenis are Sunni Muslims.