THE LEVANT – Thousands of southern Yemenis turned out in Aden Friday to demand independence for their once sovereign region, as Houthi rebels from the north press to expand their control over more of the impoverished country.
The demonstrators gathered in Aden’s Parade Square to mark a “Day of Anger” called by the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Peaceful Movement for the Liberation and Independence of the South, a new coalition of two major separatist groups.
Waving flags of former South Yemen, they chanted “we demand freedom and independence” and “independence or death.”
On October 14, tens of thousands protested in central Aden’s al-Arood Square, setting up a tent camp and promising an indefinite sit-in to press for independence.
The Supreme Council has urged southerners working for the government, especially those in the armed forces and police, to abandon their jobs and join the protests.
Many protesters go to work during the day and return in the afternoon to the camp, which has some 120 tents, activists said.
The south was independent between the end of British colonial rule in 1967 and union with the north in 1990.
A secession attempt four years later sparked a brief but bloody civil war that ended with northern forces occupying the region.
The separatists, as well as Houthis, rejected plans unveiled in February for Yemen to become a six-region federation, including two for the south.
The Supreme Council is led by exiled former South Yemen president Ali Salem al-Baid and Hassan Baum, who heads the hardline wing of the Southern Movement.
However, around 20 other factions have formed a separate coalition – the National Council for the Salvation of the South – under the leadership of Mohammed Ali Ahmed, the former South Yemen interior minister.
Houthi clashes continue
Meanwhile, two Yemeni Houthis were killed and a third was kidnapped, while a militant from the Tihamah region was wounded during clashes between the two sides on Thursday in the western province of al-Hudaydah, a local source said.
He added that the clashes continued to rage unabated in the western province, noting that the kidnapped person was an army conscript fighting with the Houthis.
Some political forces, meanwhile, called for a march on Saturday against the presence of Houthis in al-Hudaydah.
Tihama is a coastal plain extending from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. A group of Yemenis live and name themselves after the plain, lobbying for a financially and administratively semi-autonomous region in their area.
On Thursday, Tihamah militants closed all entry points to the site of their clashes with the Houthis, while the latter group had been receiving reinforcements, eyewitnesses said.
Tihamah supporters have been staging a sit-in at the site of the clashes for several months now, demanding the establishment of a federal system, under which their region would enjoy semi-autonomy.
Houthis have managed to capture different strategic areas along the Red Sea coast in al-Hudaydah, including the civilian airport, the military airport and the main seaport.
The steady expansion of Houthis has angered al-Qaeda, which views Shia as heretics and Houthis as pawns of Iran.
There are fears that if Yemen falls apart, al-Qaeda militants will exploit it as a haven.
Al-Qaeda is active in several Yemeni provinces, mainly in the south and southeast, where repeated government military campaigns drove the network’s militants out of key cities they once controlled.
Yemen has been dogged by political instability since an uprising forced dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in 2012.