Wissam Keyrouz, AFP
Last updated: 13 September, 2012

South Yemen leader returning home after 18-year exile

Exiled southern Yemeni leader Ali Salem al-Baid said on Thursday he has decided to return to his country to press for the independence of Yemen’s south.

“My return to Yemen is only a matter of time and is based on consultations with Southern Movement leaders inside the country,” he told AFP in a telephone interview from exile in Beirut.

The southern leader has been living in exile since he left Aden 18 years ago when northern troops entered the city, which was the capital of south Yemen’s formerly independent state.

After the 1990 union between North and South Yemen, the south broke away in 1994, with Baid — vice president at the time — declaring independence. The move sparked a short-lived civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.

Residents in the south complain of discrimination by the Sanaa government, citing an inequitable distribution of resources since the union.

In 2007, the Southern Movement coalition emerged as a social protest movement of retired officials and soldiers. But it has gradually grown more radical in its demands.

Some factions of the Southern Movement want autonomy for the south, but more hardline members are pressing for a return to complete independence.

Baid played down the differences within the movement, which is to hold a General Southern Movement Conference on September 30 aimed at unifying the coalition’s ranks.

He said the country’s new leader, President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi — a southerner himself — had a “historic chance” to win the trust of southerners and “stand by their side” in their bid for independence.

The Sanaa government has invited the southerners to take part in a national dialogue set for November.

But Baid said talks between the Sanaa government and southerners would have to take place under the supervision of the United Nations and the Arab League, as a main condition for participation.

Other conditions include the “withdrawal of all military units and militias belonging to the (northern) occupation, release of all detainees, and the dropping (court) of charges against southern politicians and journalists,” he said.

The national dialogue should in principle include all parties in Yemen, based on a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal under which former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after last year’s massive street protests.

During the protests, Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch strengthened its presence across the south and east of Yemen taking over several towns before the army launched an all-out offensive in May and retook towns, mainly in the south’s Abyan province.

For Baid, “the south has historically never known terrorism except when terrorist forces participated alongside the northern occupation forces in the military invasion of the south in 1994.”

“The problem of Al-Qaeda in the south is linked to the problem of the continued occupation” by the north, he said, charging that “Al-Qaeda was created by the Sanaa regime.”

Saleh’s critics repeatedly accuse him of having handed over southern towns to Al-Qaeda in an attempt to fuel instability during the 2011 uprising.