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Yemen separatists push for new nation in test for Saudi diplomacy

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Dubai (AFP)

Yemeni separatists are intent on reclaiming independence for the south, but they have had mixed fortunes on the battlefield and their ambitions face formidable resistance -- not least from regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

The fighting between the government and the separatists, seen as a civil war within Yemen's already complex conflict, has sparked fears the country could break apart unless a peace deal is forged soon.

Analysts say the fight for the south is a key test for Saudi Arabia, which hopes to mediate a ceasefire so it can focus on its main mission: battling Huthi rebels who captured the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The situation in the interim capital Aden Thursday remained volatile with separatists saying they have regained full control of the city, just a day after the Yemeni government claimed it had seized it back.

Long the Arab world's poorest nation, Yemen is now split along two fronts after years of conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

On one front, southern forces and the government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, are both battling the Huthis who are aligned with Riyadh's arch foe Iran.

On the other, the so-called Security Belt Forces -- dominated by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) -- are fighting to regain the south's independence.

They want to address what they say is a history of exploitation and marginalisation since Yemen's unification.

Once colonised by the British, South Yemen won independence in 1967, with its own institutions and a distinct identity.

Just four years after it merged with North Yemen in 1990, resentment over what many saw as a lopsided deal erupted into an armed secession movement.

The fighting ended with the south's occupation by northern forces.

"The people of the south were put under northern occupation, far from what a unified country should be," the head of the STC's political department Khaled Bamadhaf told the pan-Arab daily Alsharq al-Awsat this week.

"The (government) seized the south's land and wealth... displaced its leaders and dismantled its civil institutions."

- 'Fought for so long' -

Simmering discontent erupted this month with the STC's seizure of Aden, former capital of South Yemen and the government's base since the Huthis' 2014 capture of Sanaa, further north.

In the following days, the STC drove hundreds of government troops out of military camps in nearby Abyan province and advanced eastwards into Shabwa province.

Pressing its advantage, the STC insisted on a return to "full sovereignty" with a state based on pre-1990 borders.

"We will sail together towards the safe harbour chosen by our people who have fought for this for so long," charismatic STC leader Aidarous al-Zoubeidi, popular in the south, said in a speech on Tuesday.

But the STC's losses came just as quickly as its victories.

The government summoned reinforcements from the north and reclaimed Shabwa and Abyan before advancing on Aden, where a tussle for control ensued.

Raiman Al-Hamdani, a London-based Yemen researcher, said that while independence is a possibility, it faces daunting challenges -- including the fact that despite its successes, the STC does not represent all southerners.

"It would completely de-legitimise the foreign intervention in Yemen and its goals" of propping up the internationally recognised government, he told AFP.

And by moving alone, the STC may have alienated other southern separatists as well as technocrats from the north "who could have helped their cause", he said.

"The south needs stronger unity and coordination to ensure they are capable of hosting state institutions for the long term," he added.

- 'War within a war' -

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have called for peace talks between Yemen's government and the separatists.

Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the recent losses indicate a fully independent south is unlikely to happen in the near future.

"But the idea is not going away any time soon," she said.

DeLozier said the flare-up poses a very public test of Riyadh's diplomatic skills.

"The Hadi government and the STC have issued statements that clearly look to Saudi Arabia, giving the kingdom tremendous leverage, but the real test is: can they use that leverage to prevent a major battle?"

Observers say the break between the government and the separatists reflects a wider rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has trained and supported the separatists despite being part of the coalition.

Yemen's government even accused the UAE on Thursday of launching air strikes against its troops in the south.

"The leadership of both countries will patch things up publicly, but ultimately recent developments bust their differences into the open and reveal that their end goals in Yemen are not aligned," said Elisabeth Kendall, a research fellow at Britain's University of Oxford.

"If Yemen is to be prevented from falling apart, broader peace talks that are more inclusive, public and transparent need to occur immediately," she said.

If not, she added, Yemen could plunge into "a war within a war."

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