ADEN (Reuters) - Senior tribal, military and political leaders have formed a new council seeking the secession of southern Yemen, the former governor of the area’s main city Aden said on Thursday, threatening to bring more turmoil to a two-year-old civil war.
Aidaroos al-Zubaidi made his announcement in a televised address in front of the flag of the former nation of South Yemen, whose forces were defeated by the north in 1994 and brought into a reunified country.
Zubaidi said a “national political leadership” under his presidency would administer and represent the south - a region which holds much of Yemen’s modest oil deposits, the backbone of its economy.
The announcement raises the prospect of more division in an already complex conflict in the impoverished Arabian Peninsular country, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Gulf Arab forces against Houthi fighters allied to Iran.
Thousands of Saudi-led air strikes have backed both southern fighters and the forces of Yemen’s internationally-recognized government against the Houthis.
But the southerners and the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have been caught up in their own power struggle - undermining Saudi efforts to coordinate the campaign.
The Houthis say the Gulf powers are seeking to divide and occupy the country
Neither the government, which is nominally based in Aden but works mostly from Riyadh, nor the Saudi-led coalition could be immediately reached for comment.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior southern Yemeni official said secessionists hoped the mostly Gulf Arab military coalition would support their cause.
“It is a step forward after a long struggle. The people of South Arabia have finally managed to organize themselves towards independence,” the official said.
“The UAE and the Gulf respect the right of self determination, and we don’t think they will be against the Southern will ... We don’t advise the Hadi government to use force,” the official added.
Many southerners feel that officials in the north have exploited their resources and cut them off from jobs and influence.
Zubaidi said the new body would continue to cooperate with the coalition and foreign powers to combat what he called Iranian influence and terrorism.
But Saudi Arabia and its key ally the United Arab Emirates, despite arming and funding southern troops during the war, do not back secession and say they fight for a unified Yemen.
Violence, famine and disease have killed more than 10,000 people since the start of the conflict, the United Nations says.
Al Qaeda’s powerful branch in Yemen has also taken advantage of the chaos to take refuge in lawless parts of the south.
Reporting By Mohammed Mukhashaf and Noah Browning; Editing by Andrew Heavens