The head of Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, an umbrella group of heavily armed and well-funded militias, said on Friday he would prioritize the creation of a separate country in negotiations with their rivals, the Houthi rebels.
Aidarous al-Zubaidi’s comments in an interview with The Associated Press come days after landmark talks concluded in Riyadh between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition fighting them in the country’s civil war. The remarks signal that his group may not be on board with a solution that does not include the creation of a separate state.
Al-Zubaidi has a dual role in Yemeni politics — he is the country’s vice president and the leader of a separatist group that has joined the internationally recognized coalition government based in the southern city of Aden.
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His trip to the United Nations General Assembly’s high-level leaders’ meeting was aimed at bolstering calls for southern secession, which has taken a backseat to talks aimed at ending the wider war. Earlier this year, the head of the country’s internationally recognized government sidelined the issue.
Speaking to AP on the sidelines, al-Zubaidi noted that the talks in Riyadh were preliminary and said his transitional council plans to participate at a later stage.
“We are asking for the return of the southern state, with full sovereignty, and that will happen through the start of negotiations with the Houthis, and the negotiations will, of course, be long-term,” al-Zubaidi said in his 40th-floor hotel suite overlooking from the UN association. “This is the goal of our strategy for negotiations with the Houthis.”
Yemen’s war began in 2014, when the Houthis swept from their northern stronghold and seized the capital, Sanaa, along with much of the country’s north. In response, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power.
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The five days of talks that ended Wednesday represented the highest-level public negotiations with the Houthis in the kingdom. The conflict has become embroiled in a wider regional proxy war that has pitted the kingdom of Saudi Arabia against long-time regional rival Iran.
Al-Zubaidi said he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s attempt to mediate and that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been staunch allies throughout the long-running conflict. However, the Gulf powers have at times found themselves on different sides of protracted internal conflicts, with the separatists at one point seizing control of Aden.
Asked directly if the UAE had provided money or weapons, he did not elaborate.
While Al-Zubaidi has repeatedly stressed that the Yemeni government’s priority is to create a southern state, with the same borders that existed before Yemen’s unification in 1990, he acknowledged that ultimately his people will decide. He said that, under international law, they would be able to vote in a referendum on alternatives, including a unified federal government.
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“I am in New York and meters away from the headquarters of the United Nations and we are only asking for what is stated, according to the laws that established the United Nations and on which it was founded,” he said. “It is our right to return to pre-1990 borders.”