U.N. chief pushes for political dialogue in divided Yemen

Reuters News

11/19/2012 10:38:30 AM - Reuters News

By Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged on Monday to help rescue stumbling efforts to implement a power transfer deal in Yemen that pulled the Arabian Peninsula country back from the brink of civil war last year.

Restoring stability in Yemen, a U.S. ally grappling with al Qaeda militants and southern separatists, is an international priority due to fears of disorder ripping apart a state that flanks top oil producer Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes.

"The United Nations is standing here to reconfirm its strong commitment that we stand side by side with the government and people of Yemen in your (pursuit of)... progress towards a better and prosperous future, characterized by reconciliation and democratic participation," Ban told a joint news conference with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Sanaa.

Ban was making his initial visit to the impoverished Arab country to mark the first anniversary of the U.S.- and Gulf-sponsored power transfer accord that ended months of mass protests against veteran strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The deal mandates Hadi to oversee major reforms during a two-year interim period to ensure a transition to democracy, including amending the constitution and restructuring the armed forces to break Saleh's family grip on them.

The process is expected to lead to presidential and parliamentary election in 2014.

But efforts to convene a national reconciliation dialogue central to reform has met resistance from south Yemen separatist leaders. Many have taken advantage of weakened central state authority in the south to return from exile and press for reviving the state that merged with north Yemen in 1990.

Many southerners complain northerners based in the capital Sanaa have discriminated against them and usurped their resources. Most of Yemen's fast-declining oil reserves are in the south. The central government denies discriminatory policy.

The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has been meeting with southern separatist leaders to try to persuade them to join the national reconciliation conference, which had been due to start this month.

BAN SAYS TO PUSH DONORS ON PLEDGES

International donors, including Saudi Arabia, have pledged around $8 billion in aid to Yemen, which was driven to the verge of bankruptcy and plunged into factional anarchy by the year-long uprising against Saleh.

Ban said the United Nations would work closely with donors to ensure they met their commitments "as soon as possible to enable President Hadi to bring political, security and financial stability" to Yemen.

"You are now starting the process of national dialogue and this process should be open for everyone including (those) who demanded change in the street and representatives of all the areas in the country," Ban said in a speech.

Western nations suspect that some southern leaders are less interested in the dialogue and more in breaking away, possibly with the backing of Iran, arch-foe of the Saudis and Americans and vying with them for regional power.

Secessionists in the south, Houthi Islamist tribal rebels in the north and al Qaeda militants all benefited from the popular upheaval that ousted Saleh in February.

A U.S.-backed army offensive ousted al Qaeda from several southern towns it had seized during the anti-Saleh uprising. But jihadi militants, exploiting popular discontent over poverty, unemployment and graft, remain strong in the region and have continued deadly attacks on government and security targets.

On Monday, Hadi promised to continue with the restructuring of the army and security forces, which split between Saleh's allies and adversaries during last year's turmoil.

He urged all political parties to join the national dialogue and stressed that elections, set for 2014, would take place on time. "We confirm we are moving ahead to meet the commitments towards our nation and people ... in the framework of the Gulf initiative," he said.

(Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)