In the rural villages around southern Yemen, the signs that a separatist movement is growing are unmistakable. Residents fly the South Arabian flag - a red, white, blue and black symbol of the former South Yemen - outside their homes, and paint it on shop fronts, street signs or on the stocks of their guns. Since South and North Yemen united in 1993, there has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction in the southern provinces, but it was only three years ago that movement gained an organisational structure.
Since then, and especially over the past three months, its demands have grown louder and the government has reacted by sending in the military. At the end of last month, more than 90 people were arrested during a rash of widespread and massive demonstrations. This week, a series of government crackdowns left at least five separatists dead, including a leader and an arms dealer and members of their families - events that have enraged locals and fuelled more demonstrations in the region. At least two soldiers were also killed when their car overturned in pursuit of separatists after a gun battle.
Last Saturday, the government closed mobile phone services, restricted road transportation and declared a state of emergency in Dhale, a region of southern Yemen. The increase in separatist activity and military action comes after the Yemeni government struck a truce on February 11 with Houthi rebels in the north. Southern separatist leaders worry that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, may now focus his attention - and his military might - on the long-simmering south.
"We expect to be attacked by Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has a history of brutally attacking his own people. He believes that Saddam Hussein was a great leader," said Sheikh Abdu Alribh al Naqib, one of the main separatist leaders in the Yafa region north of Aden. "Look what he did to his own people in Sa'ada. Why should we not expect to be next?" The Sa'ada conflict began in 2004 when Houthi rebels, a political faction of Zaidi Shiites, a religious minority, began agitating for equal representation in Yemen's central government. The Houthis did not call for secession from the union.
The Yemeni government, however, has lumped its internal enemies into one category, labelling the Houthis, the separatists and al Qa'eda as "terrorists" who together make up "the triangle of evil" bent on destabilising the central government. Western and Gulf leaders and analysts have said repeatedly that supporting Mr Saleh and his government is a key part of fighting al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the militant group's Yemen and Saudi affiliate.
A December Human Rights Watch report warned that southern separatists and al Qa'eda shared hatred for the government and may be forging unlikely bonds, but separatist leaders have dismissed the relationship. They say the government's accusations are a calculated political move. "Saleh wants to scare the West into supporting a war against a freedom and peace-loving people," said Mr al Naqib. "We support human rights, freedom and the rule of law. We do not agree with al Qa'eda. They are not welcome in our land."
Like Tariq al Fadhli, a prominent separatist leader and an ex-jihadist in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Mr al Naqib has made overtures towards the United States in recent months in an effort to persuade Washington and its western and Gulf allies to ensure that their military aid to Yemen - designed to fight al Qa'eda - is not used against the separatist movement in the south. Separatist leaders called for demonstrations last Saturday when Gulf countries met in Riyadh to discuss development and defence aid to Yemen. They say counter-terrorism money given to Mr Saleh's government will be used to bomb their villages.
The separatist movement's primary grievance is what it sees as economic, political and cultural oppression by the north. The movement's leaders say the Yemeni government has extracted oil and gas from the south, confiscated southerners' land and systematically discriminated against southerners in government and military jobs. It also complains that Sana'a has deliberately starved southern towns of public money for schools, hospitals or road maintenance.
"The north took my family farmland without moving us, or compensating us in any way. They just came in with guns and said, 'Leave.' What are we supposed to do?" said Fahmi Alshebe, an Aden resident who sympathises with the separatist movement. Abdul Hamid Shukry, who works as a surgeon in Aden, said his salary was lower than that of surgeons in the north. "We are second-class citizens," he said. "The north has taken everything - our jobs, our resources, our economy, our land. They have dragged us back into tribalism and intolerance. To them, we are nothing."
Discontent with the "northern government", as it is often called in the south, is fairly common in Aden, where people say they long for the days of British rule, which lasted from 1839 to 1967 and left its vestiges on the now-dilapidated port city in the form of churches, stately government offices and a rather grand visitors' pier. Others are nostalgic for the Socialist government, which ruled South Yemen during the 1970s and left a legacy of education, secularism and relative gender equality - but almost completely destroyed the nation's economy. A Communist takeover in the 1980s led to an extended period of economic destitution, and in 1990, South and North Yemen unified peacefully.
The friendship quickly soured. In 1994, a southern uprising was crushed by the north in a short, but brutal, civil war, during which MrSaleh enlisted battle-hardened jihadists, recently home to Yemen from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, as a proxy militia against the south. In the past two decades, literacy rates and women's rights in southern Yemen have slipped, while unemployment and poverty levels have risen. Tribal law and the instances of once-banned, conservative Islamic traditions - such as child marriage - have also made a resurgence, much to the chagrin of those who grew up under British or Socialist rule.
A poll in January by the Yemeni Center for Civil Rights found that 70 per cent of southern Yemenis are in favour of secession, which until recently has centred around peaceful protests. Some separatist leaders say that sentiment is changing. "I think violence is coming," said Mohamed Tamah, a high-profile separatist leader in the Yafa region, who is wanted by Yemeni authorities. "Too many things have happened. Too many arrests, too many deaths, too much injustice. We are in a state of emergency. Something will happen soon."
The current incarnation of the separatist movement - the "Southern Movement", as it is called - began in 2007 when former military officers protested, saying they had been denied their pensions after the 1994 civil war. For the past three years, the movement has been a relatively diffuse organisation, marred by internal conflicts, but in recent months, leaders from several southern provinces and Aden intellectuals say the movement has begun to coalesce.
In the absence of an official central leader, many separatists look to the exiled former vice-president of Yemen, Ali Salim al Bidh, who after a long period of silence, has recently renewed his call for separatist agitation. Many analysts worry that the southern movement is gaining steam too quickly. With protests happening more often, the government response becoming more violent and some separatist leaders talking about armed insurgency, many southerners fear a massive military offensive in the rural south from the central government.
The government's nearly seven-month offensive against the Houthis last autumn - bolstered by Saudi Arabian military involvement - displaced roughly 120,000 people, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and left 7,000 houses in ruin, according to an estimate published in Small Wars Journal. "A war is not the answer. Secession is not the answer," said Mohammed Ismail al Saroori, the secretary general of a new party that supports reform and unity with the north. "There must be change - things cannot stay as they are - but through political reform."
For their part, separatist leaders say the time for politics and reform is over. "We have been using peaceful protests for three years. We have called upon the government to change, to reform, but nothing," said Mr Tamah. "All the regime in the north understands is the gun." * The National