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Crises multiply for divided Yemen

Yemeni southerners protesting - July 2009
Yemeni southerners hold regular anti-government protests

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Sanaa

Faced with a civil war in the north, pro-independence protests in the south and al-Qaeda attacks throughout the country Yemen's government has its work cut out. But ministers insist the country has survived worse crises in the past and that the central authority will prevail.

"We have one Yemen and one state. The government has not yet used all the forces at its disposal," said Deputy Planning Minister Hisham Sharaf.

For western governments the most pressing issue is al-Qaeda.

The US is currently holding 94 Yemenis in Guantanamo, nearly half of the total number still in the camp. But Washington is reluctant to let them go back home because it sees Yemen as an unstable al-Qaeda stronghold.

I fear we'll have military insurgency in the south and then we'll have people wearing explosive vests attacking government buildings. That is close to happening now
Abdul Ghani al-Irayani, political analyst

The government in Sanaa is more bothered by the civil war in the north. The conflict has been going on since 2004 but has intensified in recent months. About 175,000 people have fled the fighting.

The rebels demands are not entirely clear. Some of the leaders want to establish an Islamic emirate based on their branch of Shia Islam. But most of the fighters are tribesmen who would probably put down their arms if they were given rather more mundane concessions such as some roads and schools.

There is consensus in Sanaa that eventually the crisis in the north will have to be resolved by negotiation. But for the moment the governments strategy is to force the rebels into a position of weakness so that they will accept a political settlement.

The situation has been complicated by the recent involvement of Saudi forces on the side of the Yemeni government which in turn accuses Iran of backing the rebels.

Secessionists

While the conflict rages in the north, there are also political divisions in the south. Protestors, often carrying guns, take to the streets every few days demanding a reversal of the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen.

Displaced Yemeni women sit in a camp
The conflict in the north has displaced hundreds of thousands

"Our objectives are to gain our independence and to evict the occupiers from our country," said the self-styled President of Southern Yemen, al-Salam al-Beid who now lives in Germany.

The government in Sanaa argues it can take the sting out of the secessionist movement by offering some political concessions. But even those who agree with that view say that if the strategy is to work, the government needs to get on with it.

"I fear we'll have military insurgency in the south and then we'll have people wearing explosive vests attacking government buildings. That is close to happening now," said political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Irayani.

Water crisis

On top of all the security problems, Yemen is running out of two vital resources: oil and water. Oil revenues are down 75% this year although that drop is explained by lower global prices as well as decreasing production.

A still from a video posted on a Houthi website showing the Yemeni army advancing
Yemen's battle against Houthi rebels in the north has drawn in Saudi Arabia

The countries water supplies are diminishing so rapidly that a World Bank-financed project has predicted the capital Sanaa could run out by 2025. The country's rapidly growing population means the underground water table is declining by between one and 12 metres each year.

"We are in serious trouble," said water minister, Abdul Rahman al-Eryani.

With remarkable honesty for a government minister he openly accuses senior army officers, tribal sheikhs and even fellow ministers of making money through illegal drilling.

"We have passed the luxury of being diplomatic, the water crisis necessitates the most rude stating of facts," Mr Eryani said.



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