SANAA Yemeni political factions will meet on March 18 to start drafting a new constitution and agree other reforms in a bid to end months of turmoil and pave the way for elections, the president and officials said on Wednesday.
The talks were promised under a Gulf-brokered deal that averted civil war in 2011 and prized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's predecessor from power - but wrangling had delayed the announcement of a start date.
Stabilizing 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 state that flanks top oil producer Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes.
"All the nationalist forces need to work closely together to make the conference a success," said Hadi as he announced the date, according to state news agency Saba.
Hadi was elected in an unchallenged vote last year and promised to restructure the impoverished Arab country's military, which includes factions loyal to the last president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
He has since struggled to contain attacks from al Qaeda and other insurgents who took advantage of the country's political chaos to strengthen their grip.
About 565 delegates are expected to attend the "national dialogue" conference that was scheduled for last year but was blocked by southern separatists, saying they were only interested in independence.
Organizers of the conference agreed to allocate half of the seats at the conference to southern Yemeni parties and groups to persuade them to attend.
Many southerners complain northerners based in the capital Sanaa have discriminated against them and usurped their resources for decades. Most of Yemen's fast-declining oil reserves are in the south, which once was an independent state. The central government denies a discriminatory policy.
Abdel-Rashid Abdel-Hafez, a member of the committee preparing the conference, said delegates would join specialized committees to draft detailed reform proposals and a new constitution over the next six months.
The conference would then meet again to approve their work, he added. The constitution is expected to set out the groundwork for presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2014.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)