SANA'A // Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, warned he would crush activists calling for southern independence while he offered to engage them in dialogue over their demands. "The separatist flags are going to burn in the days and weeks ahead. We have one flag we voted on with our free will," Mr Saleh said in an address at a military academy on Monday.
"Come talk with your brothers in the authority, and we will talk with you. We extend the hand of dialogue without [your] having to resort to violence or blocking roads or raising the flag of separation." Mr Saleh said his government would form local committees to talk with the southern activists. "If there are any political demands, they are welcome. Come to dialogue. "We reject the spreading of the culture of hate, racism and regionalism." In 1990, the Marxist-led south and tribal-dominated north made peace after years of fighting to form Yemen, but the deal between the People's General Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party fell apart and a political crisis developed, leading to civil war in 1994.
The socialists were crushed by the army of the present president, Mr Saleh, and since then, the south has long decried neglect and overbearing tactics by the government in Sana'a. Mr Saleh formed special fact-finding committees in 2007 to study problems in the south. The committees recommended that 15 senior officials responsible for those wrongs should be ousted if Mr Saleh wanted to maintain unity. None has yet to be held accountable.
For the past three years, the southern part of Yemen has been hit by increasingly angry protests by people complaining about economic and political marginalisation. Dozens have been killed and hundreds arrested in confrontations between southern protesters and police since then. Mr Saleh's offer this week comes after repeated clashes between government troops and activists of the Southern Movement, which is an umbrella organisation that embraces several secessionist groups. The violence left dozens of dead and wounded on both sides in recent weeks, as protests escalated and authorities rounded up scores of southern activists.
At the end of last month, more than 90 people were arrested during a rash of widespread and massive demonstrations. Last week, a series of government clampdowns 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. Three people, including two policemen, were killed in southern Yemen on Thursday in armed clashes between separatists and police in Lahj, while in Shabwa province, to the east, police and demonstrators exchanged fire in Mayfah. Two policemen died as they attempted to flee, but their vehicle overturned.
The government declared a state of emergency last week in Dhal'e, after an outbreak of protests. Scores of people were arrested after troops came under fire and shops were torched. The state of emergency remains in force. The government intensified its campaign against Southern Movement activists and said it arrested 27 in the past few days in Abyan, Lahj and Dhal'e, according to the ministry of interior.
It was difficult to get any comment from Southern Movement leaders as the government continues to close mobile phone services in the three tense provinces. While Mr Saleh called for dialogue with the separatists, he launched a ruthless attack on the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an opposition coalition of six parties, including the Islamist Islah Party. Mr Saleh accused the JMP of supporting al Houthi Shiite insurgents in the north and separatists in the south to blackmail his government.
Mohammed al Sabri, a leading politician in the JMP, said the president's call for dialogue is not serious. "I do not know how he calls for dialogue while the government continues cracking down on the Southern Movement activists. The government is not working to defuse tension all over the country but such a speech is fuelling tension and unrest," Mr al Sabri said. The JMP called on Saturday for nationwide protests in support of the southern activists, accusing the government of exercising "brutal crackdown against the peaceful movement protesters".
Mohammed Aeysh, an independent political analyst, said the government is facing international pressure to talk with the opposition and separatists. "The attack of the president on the JMP is an attempt to say the government is in a position where it is able to impose its own conditions at the expected dialogue. The JMP is intensifying its attack on the government to achieve good results during dialogue," he said.