SANA'A // Government authorities and the southern movement are holding competing demonstrations today to observe the 15th anniversary of Yemen's civil war in 1994. The authorities will attempt to interrupt the gatherings of the southern movement, which is increasingly gaining momentum in the southern provinces, by staging counter-protests and backing vigilante militias - committees for the defence of unity that are better known as "unity guards".
The authorities announced last month that the committees had been set up to protect and defend the country's unity. The authorities have not admitted they are militias but say they are people who want to defend Yemen's integrity. A leading member in the opposition Socialist Party warned that such practices by officials could lead to violent repression of protests. "We do warn the government against suppressing the peaceful demonstrators. We do also warn against using militia like the Janjaweed [in Sudan] to confront these demonstrators, pushing people to fight against each other. This will open problems that will be then difficult to control," said Ali Dahmas, a leading Socialist in the southern Abyan province.
Mr Dahmas said the government would have noone to blame but itself if it were to find itself plagued with calls for separation. "We have been calling since 1994 for fixing the path of unification and addressing the devastating consequences of the war. "It is government indifference in addressing the people's problems that have pushed them to chant for division. We are not for separation but unity should be visible in terms of development projects like water and electricity. Instead of announcing positive messages to the south, the government is celebrating this war and reminding the people of its woes," Mr Dahmas said.
As state-run media produced reports and programmes celebrating the occasion when the war ended, a ruling party official said supporters of unification should have their own say. "I think it is the right of the citizens to go to the street and declare their support for unity. It is their right to denounce calls for division and hatred," said Tariq al Shami, spokesman of the ruling People's General Congress.
In 1990, a union between the Marxist-led south and tribal-dominated north was reached. However, the deal between the People's General Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party fell apart and a political crisis developed, which led to civil war in 1994. The Socialists were crushed by the army of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, and the defeated leaders went into exile despite a pardon issued by Mr Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 to 1990. He has been president of a united Yemen since 1990.
"We do consider the seventh of July a day for unity's tenacity; on this day, the people decided to maintain unity. The people who are calling for separation of the south, they do not represent the south. There are many people who support unity and are ready to fight for it. It is unfair that voices of unity are accused of fomenting sedition while those who call for division are called a peaceful movement," Mr al Shami said.
In a precautionary step, the authorities arrested some key leaders of the southern movement and intensified security measures in the port city of Aden to stop the movement supporters flow to the city. Thousands of people went to the streets in Aden on Sunday in support of unity. "We have called for big demonstrations to observe the 1994 war on the south and demand disengagement, restoring the southern state peacefully and toppling the regime that destroyed the unity," said Naser al Khubaji, a leading member of the southern movement.
"By arresting some active and key members of the southern movement, the authorities want to abort the rally. However, it is mistaken [hope] for such repression gives us more energy to continue our peaceful fight for independence and restoration of our state," Mr al Khubaji said. Southerners complain that any true partnership created as a result of unification in 1990 was destroyed by the 1994 civil war.
Mr Saleh formed special fact-finding committees in 2007 to study problems in the south. The committees recommended that 15 senior officials responsible for those wrongs should be ousted, if Mr Saleh wanted to maintain unity. None has yet to be held accountable. For the past three years, the southern part of Yemen has been hit by angry protests by people complaining about economic and political marginalisation.
Mr Saleh warned last April of the consequences of splitting Yemen and called for dialogue with leaders of the southern movement. But nothing concrete has come of it. Instead, authorities have put some of the movement's leaders on trial on charges of inciting people to act against the law and fomenting sectarian division and hatred. firstname.lastname@example.org