ADEN Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi met southern separatists for the first time in Aden on Sunday ahead of a conference aimed at drafting a new constitution before elections in 2014, the state news agency said.
Hadi, elected in 2012 after a year of turmoil that drove the U.S.-allied country to the brink of civil war, promised the separatists a fair solution to their grievances ahead of the so-called conference of national dialogue which aims to put the country on the course to full democratic elections next year.
"We have an historic opportunity to resolve all our problems including the most persistent ones via comprehensive national dialogue," news agency Saba quoted Hadi as telling leaders of the southern separatist movement known as al-Herak al-Janoubi .
Hadi urged them to support the so-called national dialogue conference, scheduled to start on March 18, Saba said. Al-Herak al-Janoubi is a coalition of groups formed in 2007 aiming to restore the southern state that merged with North Yemen in 1990.
Stabilising Yemen, a U.S. ally grappling with al Qaeda militants, southern separatists and northern rebels, is an international priority due to fears of disorder in a land that flanks top oil producer Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes.
A spokesman for the separatists said Hadi gave instructions for 17 southern activists killed during clashes with security forces last month to be considered as martyrs and for their families to be paid 5 million Yemeni riyals ($15,500) each.
"The meeting was positive and all issues were discussed," said Ali al-Darb, from one al-Herak al-Janoubi faction.
"The president pledged international guarantees and equal representation at the conference," he added.
But Hussein Zeid bin Yahya, from another faction of al-Herak led by the last president of the Socialist southern state, Ali Salem al-Beidh, said: "The dialogue we want is between two sides, north and south, on the basis of separation."
Organizers of the conference have already agreed to allocate half of its 565 seats to southern Yemeni parties and groups to persuade them to attend.
The central government has also taken steps to improve conditions in southern Yemen, including restoring property confiscated from locals and rehiring fired state employees.
Many southerners complain northerners based in the capital Sanaa discriminate against them and have usurped their resources. Most of Yemen's fast-declining oil reserves are in the south, which once was an independent state.
Hadi was elected in an unchallenged vote last year after a power transfer deal that saw former President Ali Abdulah Saleh step down after 33 years in office.
He has promised to restructure the impoverished Arab country's military, which includes factions loyal to Saleh, but has struggled to contain attacks from al Qaeda and other insurgents which increased during the political chaos.
($1 = 322.6509 Yemen riyals)
(Reporting by Mohammed Mokhashaf; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Jason Webb)