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ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen's separatists want to see a Sudan-style referendum on southern secession if protests seeking to end the three-decade rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh succeed, a senior separatist leader said on Tuesday.
A senior member in the Southern Movement, Yassin Ahmad Saleh Qadish was a member of the socialist party that ran south Yemen until 1990 when it negotiated unification with the tribal, more religiously conservative north.
"The south will push for a referendum after Saleh falls. It is a mass demand," Qadish, a former diplomat, said.
"The unity agreement was based on sharing power and resources," he said. "The experiment has utterly failed. We were fooled. South Yemen is under occupation. Most of our resources are going to the north."
Saleh, a U.S. ally against al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, has failed to stop daily protests that have left 24 people dead in the past two weeks, most of them in Aden, the former capital of an independent southern state.
North and south Yemen united in 1990 and a civil war began four years later. Saleh's forces crushed the secessionists and reunited the country, but southerners complain that northerners take their resources while denying them political participation.
Qadish said more than 400 people had died for southern Yemeni independence since 1994 but said that "no one noticed."
"The Arab revolutions we are witnessing have changed all that. Saleh can no longer crush us," he said.
The Southern Movement, a loose coalition set up in 2007 by former southern officers sacked by the new state, now includes southern politicians in exile such as former leaders Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas and Ali Salem al-Beidh.
"We are not a party in the strict sense. The Southern Movement is a wide base popular movement," Qadish said.
The southern port city of Aden has taken the brunt of casualties in protests so far, and southerners have put aside separatists slogans for northern calls for Saleh to go.
Some northern politicians have advocated choosing a southern president after Saleh, but Qadish said it was too late to save unity, with southerners having been disenfranchised for too long and kept out of major positions in government and security.
The south comprises half of Yemen's land mass and most of its 300,000 barrel per day oil output. It has 5.5 million residents compared with 18.8 million in the north.
"We have been always more of a civil society. Regaining our independent state is inevitable. It is a matter of time before Saleh falls and we have a referendum," Qadish said.
The Southern Movement, he said, was unfazed by lack of world support for separation. Yemen's northern neighbor Saudi Arabia backs Saleh, fearful of separatist contagion.
Saleh is also an ally to Washington in its campaign against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but Qadish said democracy was the best way to defeat extremism.
Qadish said Saleh has been strengthening his grip on the south by distributing land and giving out oil and mineral concessions, but the tribal approach had no place in the south, where education has been stronger traditionally.
"Tribalism, Islamisation and corruption will lessen after we separate. The south was totalitarian but the administration was clean," he said. "Now you cannot do any official business, however small, without paying bribes."
Writing by Khaled Oweis; Editing by Louise Ireland