By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's government has offered southern separatists half of the seats at a planned reconciliation conference, a top official said on Monday, in a bid to salvage a meeting deemed crucial for the success of last year's power transfer deal.
Restoring stability in Yemen is an international priority due to fears of disorder ripping apart the Arabian Peninsula country that flanks top oil exporter Saudi Arabia as well as major shipping lanes.
Southern Yemeni politicians have refused to attend the conference, originally scheduled for mid-November, to discuss constitutional reforms ahead of national elections expected in 2014.
The separatists are seeking the restoration of the state that merged with North Yemen in 1990 and have demanded that they be given equal representation at the conference with northern Yemenis.
"The southern question is key to all other issues, because solving it will have implications on the nature of the state and the new constitution," Sultan al-Atwani, the deputy chairman of a committee tasked with preparing for the dialogue told Reuters in an interview.
Atwani said the organisers plan to invite some 565 delegates, half of which will be reserved for "different components of the south".
"We have given the southern secessionist parties a good number of seats to attract them," he said.
Southern separatists have yet to comment on the new proposal.
Atwani said President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi would fix a new date for the meeting.
Many southerners complain that 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 having a discriminatory policy.
The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has been meeting with southern separatist leaders to try to persuade them to attend the conference.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on his first visit to Yemen, pledged on November 19 to help rescue stumbling efforts to implement the power transfer deal that pulled the Arabian Peninsula country back from the brink of civil war last year.
"I think any party that doesn't take part in the dialogue will lose because this is the right time and place to discuss all issues," Atwani said. "We have to reach a common ground in order to build a new Yemen."
Western nations suspect that some southern leaders are less interested in the dialogue than in breaking away, possibly with the backing of Iran, the arch-foe of the Saudis and Americans and vying with them for regional power.
(Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Hugh Lawson)