Protests over Yemen's economic malaise spread to other southern cities

ADEN (Reuters) - Demonstrations spread to new parts of southern Yemen on Monday even as they eased slightly in the port city of Aden following government orders aimed at strengthening the local currency and reversing economic decline.

Protesters burned tires in order to cut roads in Aden’s Sheikh Othman district, and many shops in other precincts remained closed after shuttering a day earlier, residents and witnesses said.

Dozens of demonstrators also marched, cut roads and closed markets in the provinces of Hadramout, Lahaj and Abyan, with some chanting “Pay our salaries in dollars like you take yours in dollars”, a reference to officials living abroad amid a domestic currency crisis.

The Yemeni rial has lost more than half its value against the U.S. dollar since the start of a civil war in 2015 between the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, based in the south and backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls the north including the capital, Sanaa.

Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

The rial plunged to about 500 to the dollar in January from 250 the year before. On Monday, bankers and currency traders in Aden said it had dropped further, reaching 620.

After demonstrations paralyzed Aden a day earlier, Hadi’s government ordered a package of measures including a temporary halt on imports of luxury goods like automobiles and a 30 percent salary increase for public-sector employees, including pensioners and contractors.

The 73-year-old leader, who lives in exile in Riyadh and has suffered from a heart condition since 2011, then flew to the United States for medical care described as routine by state media.

Organizers have pledged to continue demonstrating until the current government resigns and prices for consumer goods are reduced.

Mohammed Qassim al-Nouman, head of the non-profit Yemen Center for Human Rights, said Hadi’s directives failed to address the reasons for economic deterioration, which he ascribed to nepotism in official appointments and runaway state spending.

“They were only decisions designed to escape from treating the real (problems), notably the government’s failure to fulfill the duties entrusted to it and its continued absence outside the country,” he said.

Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries and the war has pushed it toward humanitarian collapse as hunger and disease spread. The United Nations has convened talks in Geneva on Thursday, the first effort to negotiate the conflict in more than two years.

The Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab states is fighting to counter the influence of Riyadh’s arch-foe Iran, an ally of the Houthis, who deny any help from Tehran and say they are fighting a revolution against corrupt politicians and Gulf powers in thrall to the West.

On Monday, the coalition said a ballistic missile fired at the southern Saudi city of Jizan had been intercepted and destroyed. The Houthis said they were targeting a Saudi Aramco facility. There were no reports of damage or casualties.

Additional reporting and writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Ed Osmond and Alison Williams