ADEN Some Yemeni separatist groups have agreed to join national reconciliation talks foreseen under a deal that averted civil war last year and prised ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, a southern politician said.
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.
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.
The separatist green light for reconciliation talks is a step forward for a Gulf-brokered deal that led to Saleh quitting in February after a year of protests against his rule and allowed his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to take office.
Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a former South Yemen interior minister who returned from exile in March, said several southern groups had accepted Sanaa's offer of half the seats at the talks.
"Yes, we will enter the dialogue," Ahmed told reporters in the southern port city of Aden late on Wednesday. "It is the right way to defend the rights of the southern people."
He said representatives from each southern province would sit in the planned talks. But some leaders have baulked.
WARTIME SOUTHERN LEADER SHUNS TALKS
One who has refused to take part is Ali Salem al-Beidh, the Beirut-based south Yemeni leader who failed in a 1994 civil war to reverse a 1990 deal merging the former South Yemen with the north. Beidh now runs a pro-independence satellite TV station.
Ahmed said the door was still open for other southern factions to join.
Efforts to convene the dialogue, originally planned for this year, had met resistance from southern separatist leaders. Many had taken advantage of weakened central state authority in the south to return from exile and press for reviving the state that merged with North Yemen more than 20 years ago.
U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar has sought to persuade southern separatist leaders to attend the conference.
During his first visit to Yemen last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged to help rescue stumbling efforts to implement the power transfer deal.
The deal mandates Hadi to oversee major reforms during a two-year interim period to ensure a transition to democracy, including amending the constitution and restructuring the armed forces to break Saleh's family's grip on them.
On Wednesday Hadi ordered a broad overhaul of the military, which is divided between Saleh's opponents and supporters. His decree abolished the elite Republican Guard, headed by the former leader's son, Brigadier-General Ahmed Saleh, as well as the First Armoured Division, led by a rival of Saleh.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf,; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Alistair Lyon)