BEIRUT (Reuters) - Foreign governments should back secessionists who want to recreate the vanished state of south Yemen, because it would crush the Islamist militants who have taken over much of the region, a secessionist leader said on Wednesday.
In an interview late on Wednesday, Ali Salem al-Beidh, last president of the socialist southern state whose 1990 union with the north crumbled into civil war four years later, said the united Yemeni state now fighting al Qaeda-linked Islamists was too dysfunctional to salvage.
“It’s a collection of tribal, military, and security cliques fighting over who’ll hold power,” Beidh said of the state led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh in February after a year of unrest.
“They are not capable of building a democratic, civil state. The northern mentality cannot live within a state, whereas the mentality of the south cannot live without one.”
Secessionist sentiment is rising in the south, where al Hiraak al Junuubi, a loose secessionist movement, sprang up in 2006-7 around cashiered southern army officers. It leads a protest campaign that security forces have countered with force and, according to Hiraak activists, arrests and torture.
Beidh represents a hard line in the Hiraak which wants the south to be recognized as the sovereign state it was before 1990 in talks over the future disposition of Yemen. Others suggest 3-5 years of federal rule before a referendum on separation.
Germany is involved in efforts to coax southerners to take part in a national dialogue prescribed by the Gulf-brokered deal that saw Saleh give up power. Those talks would address southern grievances within the framework of a unified Yemen.
The uprising last year saw the military split into pro- and anti-Saleh factions that fought each other and tribal militias, raising U.S. and Saudi fears of civil war and a collapse of the state which would embolden the Yemeni franchise of al Qaeda.
U.S. officials say they recently thwarted a plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb an airliner, the latest in a string of abortive attacks the group has planned on U.S. and Saudi targets from Yemen since 2009.
Another group, Ansar al-Sharia, flies al Qaeda’s flag over swathes of southern Yemen it seized from government forces as the uprising gained force last year, and in March routed Yemeni troops attempting to retake them.
Its advance drew charges that Saleh - long a key to U.S. “counter-terrorism” strategy - had ceded territory to create an enemy he would be needed to fight. Beidh cited the use of Islamists against the south in the civil war as proof of a long-standing relationship.
“This force doesn’t just threaten us; it threatens neighboring countries and shipping in the Arabian Sea and any aspiration to civilization,” he said.
“We want international and regional powers to wake up to this fact and back us in confronting al Qaeda, to deliver our country from this plague,” he said. “With a little international support we could finish off al Qaeda.”
Beidh, who has been in exile in Germany and Oman since Saleh’s troops crushed southern forces in the civil war, said Hiraak forces were playing a role among regional militia now fighting Ansar al-Sharia in southern Abyan province.
Hadi’s government has launched an offensive against Ansar al-Sharia in Abyan, with some participation by military trainers from the United States, which has accelerated its campaign of assassinations by drone strike since Hadi took office.
Beidh acknowledged splits in the southern movement, but said there was consensus on the goal of resurrecting a state which once had relatively strong institutions and better standards of education and development than most Arab countries.
“Ninety percent of southerners, whatever their political affiliations, are in agreement about getting back their state, not secession, because we offered it up voluntarily in service of a greater project, and have been occupied since,” he said.
He said he was open to support from the region to advance that cause, including from Iran, which the United States has accused of meddling in southern Yemen to expand its influence.
“Iran is just one of the regional countries, and not the only one present (in Yemen). There’s a relationship and interaction with all of them,” he said.
“We welcome anyone who is willing to cooperate with us, and prefer that our brothers in neighboring countries, who know us and are the closest to us take the initiative in saving us from this backward occupation.”
Editing by Andrew Roche