SANAA Wrangling over demands by southern secessionists is holding up efforts at Yemen's most important political gathering in decades to tame the country's multiple conflicts and repair the oil-dependent economy.
A so-called National Dialogue conference of political groupings had been due to end its six months of deliberations on Thursday with recommendations on a new constitution and voting system, paving the way for full democratic elections in 2014.
Stabilising Yemen, a U.S. ally struggling 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.
But organisers decided to extend the process by two weeks to allow members more time to discuss the form a new Yemen would take, the ministry of defence said in a statement.
"The dialogue has been extended by two weeks," said the statement. It did not specify an end date.
Southern secessionists want to divide Yemen into two regions with the south having significant control over its own affairs. A number of northern parties favour a multi-region federation.
A source at Yemen's presidency told Reuters that the decision to extend the process was to give an opportunity for a team assigned to address the southern question to decide the south's place in a new constitutional framework.
"There is general agreement on Yemen as a federal state, but the dispute is about the number of regions," the source added.
Civil war broke out between North Yemen and the former Marxist south in 1994, four years after the two countries merged into one state. Then President Ali Abdullah Saleh crushed southern secessionist forces and preserved the union.
In the decades since, the consequences of the conflict have fuelled secessionist demands for separation.
Southerners complain of discrimination by the north, including dismissals of tens of thousands from state jobs, seizure of state assets and private property and withholding of state pensions from families of soldiers killed in the conflict.
Most of the fast-declining oil reserves in Yemen, the Arab world's second poorest country after Mauritania, are in the south. Many families depend on remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia.
The central government denies a discriminatory policy.
Ahmed al-Khalani, a former minister and leader of the General Congress Party (GCP) of former president Saleh, said he would refuse a north-south split. "This constitutes a crime against the nation and should not be tolerated," he said.
Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters all parties at the talks had accepted the idea of a federal state. Speaking on a visit to Dubai on Wednesday, Qirbi said he envisaged the conference eventually agreeing on four or five provinces.
Planned elections in 2014 would end a two-year transitional stage engineered by the United States and its Gulf Arab allies as well as the United Nations in which former president Saleh was eased from power. Saleh had faced a year-long popular uprising against his rule before he stepped down in 2012.
(Reporting by Mohamed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; Editing by William Maclean and ......... ...............)