SANAA (Reuters) - A south Yemeni separatist leader on Wednesday walked out of national reconciliation talks meant chart a new constitution for U.S.-allied Yemen, setting back efforts to keep the fragile country together.
The move could prompt other politicians to quit the talks and deepen instability in a country afflicted by Sunni Islamist militants, Shi'ite Muslim rebels and a southern separatists.
The Conference of National Reconciliation, launched in March as part of a 2011 Gulf-brokered power transfer deal that eased long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office, has been struggling with demands by southern separatists to restore South Yemen, which merged with North Yemen in 1990.
Lack of progress on this issue has raised Western concern that the power transfer deal could unravel, deepening nationwide disorder, boosting al Qaeda's most deadly franchises and unsettling adjacent oil exporting heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
"The decision to withdraw from the talks came after we exhausted all political efforts to reach a just solution for the southern question," Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a former South Yemen interior minister who returned from exile in London in March 2012, told a news conference in Sanaa.
Ahmed leads a group of more than 60 delegates among some 85 members of the main southern separatist group known as Herak, at the conference.
It was not immediately clear how many delegates had walked out with Ahmed, but analysts said the development was likely to make reaching a compromise over the south more difficult.
"Regardless of how many members of Herak leave the conference, the issue of the south has become more difficult to resolve," said Ali Saif, a Yemeni analyst.
An official at a committee overseeing the talks said he was surprised by Ahmed's move because the "team assigned to tackle this issue is still debating proposals on the subject".
He said leaders overseeing the reconciliation talks were meeting to discuss the implications of Ahmed's move.
MYRIAD SECURITY WOES
Apart from southern secessionist demands, Yemen is also grappling with a rebellion in the north, which flared last month into sectarian clashes between Sunni Salafis and Shi'ite Houthi rebels in which more than 100 people have died.
Yemen's north and its once-Marxist south united in 1990, but civil war broke out four years later in which then-President Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union. Since then, the consequences of the conflict have fuelled southern demands for another partition or autonomy.
Southerners complain of discrimination by the north, including the dismissal of tens of thousands of people from state jobs and seizure of state assets and private property.
Yemeni officials worked hard to bring southern separatists to attend the talks, allocating nearly half of the 565 seats to the former South Yemen despite it having a smaller population.
Hadi's government has also formally apologized over the 1994 civil war in which the more populous North prevailed over southern attempts to restore the old socialist state, and agreed to return sacked civil servants and military officers to their old jobs and pay compensations for the lapsed period.
But Fahmy al-Saqqaf, a leader in Herak, accused the Sanaa government of foot-dragging on implementing other pledges and of trying to divide the southern separatist movement to make it easier to control.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Mark Heinrich)