The southern separatists who have seized control of Yemen’s port city of Aden will use upcoming crisis talks to push for an independence referendum and a role in the country’s UN-led peace process, said the group’s envoy Sulaiman Al-Khader.
Speaking with Inside Over, Al-Khader, the UN representative for the Southern Transitional Council (STC), said emergency talks requested this week by Saudi Arabia offered his group a chance to push for greater southern autonomy and, ultimately, independence.
“We welcome the talks in Saudi Arabia and will take part, as de-escalation is a priority right now. But moving forward, the STC must get a seat at the table in the United Nations-led peace process, from which it has so far been sidelined,” Al-Khader said in an interview.
“Bringing the STC into the process is the only way to bring peace to Yemen.”
Southern separatists, supported by coalition member the United Arab Emirates, effectively took control of Aden, the temporary seat of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, this past weekend by seizing government military bases and the presidential palace.
The fighting killed up to 40 people and wounded 260 others, the UN says. But the International Committee for the Red Cross said this week that clinics in Aden had counted “scores dead” and hundreds wounded from the clashes.
The US-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014. Hadi’s government relocated to Aden.
The STC’s Security Belt and other armed southern groups are integral to Riyadh’s coalition, but the war has revived old wounds between north and south Yemen, which were separate countries until unification in 1990.
A peace process led by UN envoy Martin Griffiths has focused on Hadi’s government, the Houthis, the coalition and fighting around the port city of Hodeidah — pushing the question of southern secession down the agenda.
Saudi Arabia has called for a summit over the Aden crisis without setting a date. Abu Dhabi has echoed Riyadh’s call for dialogue but stopped short of asking the southern forces that it trained, funds and arms to give up control.
“The southern people have been marginalized for too long and their patience has run out. There must be a referendum on independence so that the people of south Yemen can exercise their human right for self-determination,” said Al-Khader.
For Al-Khader, Hadi’s government needs to scrap its ties with the Islamist Islah party, which has been linked to a Houthi missile strike on southern forces that killed a prominent southern military leader earlier this month.
“Hadi runs a dysfunctional government of non-functioning institutions that do not provide basic services. It has also been hijacked by Islah and other forces that make it difficult for the STC to partner with,” Al-Khader said.
The deadly clashes exposed a rift between nominal allies that threatens to worsen a stalemated conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and created what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The war broke out in late 2014 when the Houthis, allied with forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized much of the country, including Sanaa. It escalated in March 2015 with a Saudi-UAE-led coalition air campaign against Houthi rebels.
Al-Khader spoke with Inside Over outside UN headquarters in New York, where he was recently posted as the STC’s representative in a sign of the group’s growing appetite to win recognition on the world stage.
“We’re trying to return our south Yemeni flag, which used to hang outside UN headquarters,” Al-Khader said, referencing the independent socialist Soviet-backed state of South Yemen that existed until 1990.
“We have the most at stake, but the world hasn’t seen that yet. It’s our job to show that we will not be third class citizens in our own country under a Sanaa regime. We’ve tried that for the past three decades and seen little but war, marginalization, poverty and abysmal schools, hospitals and roads.”
STC officials say that between 80 and 90 percent of southerners want independence. Such levels of support may be exaggerated, but many analysts say the majority of the southern population could well vote to split.
The STC is supported by Independent Diplomat, an advisory group founded by former British government political officer Carne Ross that has assisted secessionists in Somaliland, Western Sahara and elsewhere.