South Yemen wants out as Houthis take Hodeida
Yemen's Houthi rebel movement seized the strategic port city of Hodeida on Tuesday, widening their fast-expanding zone of control, hours after a new premier was named in a bid to defuse the country's political crisis.
With the weakening of central authority, battered by the rebels' take-over of the capital, Sanaa, last month, southern separatists are stepping up their demands for independence.
The Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels met little resistance as they overran Hodeida, 225 kilometres (140 miles) west of Sanaa, taking control of Yemen's second most important seaport, a security official said.
"Houthi militants are deployed across vital installations, including the airport and the port," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Analysts say the Houthis may be building on the momentum gained from their recent battlefield successes to seize more territory. In addition to Sanaa, they also have taken over the provinces of Sadah and Amran to the north. On Tuesday, they were in full control of the province of Dhamar, just south of Sanaa.
The Houthis captured Hodeida and Dhamar without any fighting, a fact that could point to the disarray within Yemen's army and security forces. But it could also be the result of cooperation between the rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has reportedly been trying to derail the political transition launched after he was forced to step down in 2011 after 33 years in power.
Army units loyal to Saleh are widely suspected to have aided last month's Houthi takeover of Sanaa by stepping aside or reaching non-aggression pacts with the rebels. But this confluence of interests – Saleh's desire to undermine the political process and to exact revenge on his foes on the one hand, and the Houthis' territorial ambitions on the other – is likely to be short-lived, according to analyst Jane Kinninmont.
"One important variable will be the role of Yemen's Gulf neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia," said Kinninmont, a Middle East expert from Chatham House, London's prestigious political research centre. "They are deeply worried by the expansion of the Houthis and may back unlikely forces who oppose it."
With the political crisis mounting in Sanaa, tens of thousands of supporters of the separatist
|We swear by God: Sanaa will not rule over us.
- Southern secessionists chanting in Aden
Southern Movement gathered in Aden on Tuesday to press demands for the south's independence, AFP reported.
The demonstration in the largest city of the south, called by hardliners in the Southern Movement, came on the 51st anniversary of the south's revolt against British colonial rule.
The exiled president of the former South Yemen, Ali Salem al-Beidh, who champions secession, urged supporters to seize the opportunity to demand independence.
"All ongoing developments fall in the interest of the southern people's justified call for freedom," he said. "We must swiftly benefit from these changes."
Protesters pitched tents in Aden's central al-Arood Square at the launch of what they said would be an indefinite sit-in.
"We swear by God: Sanaa will not rule over us," chanted the protesters, who raised flags of the former South Yemen.
The south was independent between the end of British colonial rule in 1967 and its 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 the Houthis, rejected plans unveiled in February for Yemen to become a six-region federation, including two for the south, as part of a post-Saleh political transition.