* Says Iran backs religious groups, southern separatists
* Tehran regularly denies involvement
* Saudi neighbour Yemen struggling to stabilise
DUBAI, March 31 Yemen's president called on Iran
to stop supporting separatists in the south and religious groups
in the north of the Arabian peninsula country, which is trying
to stabilise after more than two years of political upheaval.
The comments by Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi published in pan-Arab
daily Al Hayat newspaper will likely further strain relations
with Iran, which has repeatedly denied interfering in Yemen.
"Unfortunately, Iranian interference still exists, whether
through its support for the Hirak separatists or some religious
groups in northern Yemen," Hadi told Al Hayat, apparently
referring to the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi rebels who are trying to
capture more territory in the northern part of the country.
"We asked our Iranian brothers to revise their wrong
policies towards Yemen, but our demands have not borne fruit. We
have no desire to escalate (the situation) with Tehran but at
the same time we hope it will lift its hand off Yemen," he said.
Gulf Arab governments and Sunni clerical allies accuse
regional Shi'ite Muslim power Iran of backing co-religionist
communities around the region.
Last year Yemen said that a ship intercepted off its coast
was an Iranian vessel trying to smuggle explosives and
surface-to-air missiles to the country. Iran denied any
connection to the weapons, found aboard the ship.
Yemen's government is grappling with a host of challenges,
including a separatist movement in the south and an Islamist
insurgency, as it tries to restore authority lost during mass
protests in 2011 that overthrew the veteran president, Ali
Iran has come under attack in Yemen: An Iranian embassy
official was kidnapped in the capital Sanaa earlier this year,
and another Iranian diplomat was fatally wounded when he
resisted gunmen who tried to kidnap him.
Hadi also defended a plan to make Yemen a federation, the
latest in a series of reforms he is overseeing through an
interim period, under a U.S.-backed power transfer deal that
eased Saleh from power.
Last month Hadi formally approved turning Yemen into a
six-region federal state to decentralise authority and give
southerners more autonomy.
But some southerners and Houthi representatives have
objected to the formulation, raising fears of further
instability in Yemen, which neighbours oil exporting heavyweight
"The (federal) system of regions will preserve Yemeni unity.
We must know that centralisation is what hurt unity and nearly
destroyed it," Hadi said.
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and Andrew