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Yemen's southern separatists battle own breakaway movement

Preacher's go-ahead for killing opponents increases fears of fighting among pro-secessionists even amid civil war
Yemeni fighters in Sanaa (AFP)

Taiz, Yemen - A new layer of complexity has been added to Yemen's civil war as the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-backed bloc fighting Iran-supported Houthi rebels faces not just a split but a real risk of internal conflict. 

The split emerged in May when a Southern Transitional Council was established after President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi removed from their posts the governor of Aden province, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, and cabinet minister Hani Bin Breik, both of whom support an independent southern Yemen.

Hadi has Saudi backing while Zubaidi and other southerners are backed by the UAE.   

Rising political tensions took an ominous turn on this month when a preacher from the newly formed transitional council, Mohammed Ramzo, called for the blood of opponents to be spilled, even if they were southerners. 

"The blood of the traitors of the Southern Council is not forbidden," he said on 7 July.

In a Friday prayer sermon, Ramzo said supporters of Hadi were traitors to the south and anyone backing federalism “should go to Sanaa" - the Yemeni capital regarded in the south as a symbol of oppression.

The unity of Yemen's southern tribes and political groupings when they combined to fight against and repel the Houthi rebels in March 2015 has all but dissipated.

The blood of the traitors of the Southern Council is not forbidden

- Mohammed Ramzo, preacher from transitional council

In 1990, North Yemen and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south unified under a popular deal between the two nation's then leaders, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Salem al-Beidh.

The agreement was signed with hopes of bringing together the two diverse nations in all aspects, including peoples, cultures and resources.

However, shortly after unification, aspirations for the new state faded, and southerners complained of marginalisation. A brief civil war ensued in 1994.

The divide now, however, has become so wide that gatherings in Aden to mark what southern Yemenis call the war of independence in 1994 had to be held in two separate locations.   

Divided we stand

Al-Oroodh square is the usual Aden venue for ceremonies to mark that war, with 7 July - the day of defeat for Aden at the hands of the government in Sanaa - the liveliest day.

This 7 July, however, two squares were used to mark the 1994 war, Oroodh and Mualla, as internal splits in the separatist movement were thrust into public view.

Ahmed al-Faqeeh, 38, was not impressed even though he supports the south's independence as well.   

"We protest under the umbrella of the Southern Movement, demanding independence of the south, but the so-called Southern Transitional Council wants us to protest under its banner," he told Middle East Eye.

"But we do not recognise this council as we did not elect it, so we refused to support the council and divided between two squares."

Although the transitional council has no recognition from Hadi's government or unanimous southern support, it did get the backing of 26 members from the Southern Movement, which seeks secession but also backs Hadi in the civil war, including five governors and two cabinet ministers under Hadi.

Some southerners see the transitional council's move as an act of “appropriation".

“The Southern Transitional Council has appropriated the leadership of the southern revolution illegally," said Faqeeh.

Southern Yemenis protest in the southern city of Lahj, on July 8, 2010 (AFP)

"We need a southern conference which includes all groups of the south to elect a leadership that can lead us towards independence and liberate our country from the northern invasion."

The transitional council has downplayed the rift among southern secessionists despite the preacher Ramzo saying that the killing of opponents, even if they are southerners, is permissible. 

A member of the media committee of the transitional council, told MEE: "There is no real force that we can consider an opponent of the council or even one that has a different project from that of the council. But there is some misunderstanding regarding some ideas of the council."

We do not recognise this council as we did not elect it, so we refused to support the council and divided between two squares

- Ahmed al-Faqeeh, separatist

''Ramzo has his own opinion, and it does not mean the southern council agrees. We already explained that Ramzo for ardent of independence, and those are his beliefs.''

The spokesman stressed that such misunderstandings or disagreements cannot be allowed to transform into real disputes and that the council would soon find a solution. 

"The council is keen to talk with all groups of the south that believe in the southern cause," he said, while pointing out that the council works under the umbrella of the government and Hadi.

Leadership battle

Fadhl al-Rabei, a political analyst and head of the Madar Strategic Studies Centre in Aden, gave MEE contradictory reactions to the Southern Transitional Council, saying that the opposition is not against the idea of the council but is seeking to ensure that all groups get a seat on it.

"Most of the southern groups were almost convinced about the idea of the council. But those groups also consider themselves to be freedom fighters and capable of being in the leadership of the south," said Rabei. "This is the main disagreement between the council and other leaders in the south."

Rabei also said the transitional council would try to provide sorely needed leadership among the southerners and therefore would not ignore any voice from southerners opposed to it.

Zabaidi, the sacked governor, is seen as close to the UAE, which southerners think will support their bid to achieve independence, according to Rabei. 

"The council, too, does not oppose Hadi because the leadership of the council wants to maintain its relationship with all coalition countries," he said. 

But Rabei also suggested that the council would be aware that fighting units in Aden were likely to be loyal to the UAE rather than to Hadi. 

The UAE played a major role in the liberation of the south from the Houthis in 2015, and most of the fighting groups in Aden work under the supervision of the UAE, he said.

He added that this included fighters who support independence, therefore their loyalty was to the UAE rather than to Hadi.

Islam forbids the shedding of Muslims' blood or incitement towards that

- Sadeq al-Sobaihi, preacher

The transitional council's success also depends on the extent of the coalition's support, he said.

"If the coalition countries support the council, then the council can achieve its goals. I think that the UAE will support it to some extent," said Rabei.

Another preacher, Sadeq al-Sobaihi, took issue with Ramzo's sermon justifying the spilling of southerners' blood, warning of a new war in the south. 

"Islam forbids the shedding of Muslims' blood or incitement towards that. We should not shed the blood of Muslims because of political disagreements. I hope that sheiks like Ramzo think this over before their sermons," he told MEE.

"The effects of the last war are still clear in the south, and we do not want to see a new war between southerners."