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Yemen: Seams of Unity Unravel

Four years after North and South joined, a power struggle turns violent

AFTER just four years of unification, Yemeni dreams of solidifying their historically fragmented country - the Biblical land of the Queen of Sheba - have dissipated amid renewed civil war.

Political observers say the two-week resumption of hostilities is the consequence of the incompetence of an overly centralized government in the north, and has been encouraged by some of Yemen's neighbors on the Arabian peninsula.

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The military situation is confused, but political observers dismiss the claims of imminent victory being made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A northerner and former military strongman of the traditionalist Republic of North Yemen who is now the elected president of a unified Yemen, Mr. Saleh has declared himself unwilling to accept any solution unless his rival for power, Ali Salem al-Beid, abandons his claim to represent southern Yemeni interests and is tried for war crimes.

Mr. Beid, who ruled southern Yemen when it was a Marxist state, helped Saleh bring about unification, and became Saleh's vice president after elections last year. He is now barricaded in Aden.

Despite the superior numbers of the northern army, forces defending the south have withstood the offensive, with the aid of their superior Soviet-trained air force. Moscow was the main supporter of the Marxist South; the end of Soviet aid pushed the impoverished southerners to abandon ``scientific socialism'' and merge with the capitalism system of the near-bankrupt North.

Central to the frustration of Yemenis in Aden was a widespread conviction that the leadership in the north was corrupt and ignoring the development of their city. This was particularly galling to residents accustomed to basic education, health care provisions, and subsidized food provided by a well-organized Socialist government. With unification these provisions crumbled, while the lack of funds to develop Aden, under British rule the third largest port in the world, meant that there were no new opportunities for Aden's eager entrepreneurs.

The anger of ordinary southerners was shared by the Socialist leadership, which claimed that dozens of party members were being assassinated as part of a northern plot.

Many northerners, although they could provide no evidence, blamed Saudi Arabia for attempting to sow discord in order to break up the republic.

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Yemen's relationship with Saudi Arabia, although murky, appears to be crucial to the complex ethnic, political, and religious politics of the Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia has always been hostile to Yemeni unification, seeing a large state on its southern border as a threat.

Within weeks of its 1990 unification, Yemen was plunged into an immediate crisis with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Saudis and Kuwaitis, Yemen's major sources of foreign aid, were outraged at the decided lack of enthusiasm in Sana for the Western-Arab coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Within days the Saudis and Kuwaitis cut all aid to Yemen, a move followed by the United States and Britain. Nearly a million Yemenis were forcibly expelled from their homes and jobs in Saudi Arabia.

During the four years of unification, the Saudis have maintained the economic pressure on Saleh despite Sana's emphasizing that it had always opposed the invasion of Kuwait. But the Saudis were further irritated by Yemen's democratic elections last year, a slap in the face to Saudi notions that a ballot based on universal suffrage is not appropriate for the Arabian peninsula.

Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Socialists of southern Yemen has been much warmer, reflecting the Socialists' hostility to Iraq, and possibly Riyadh's desire to encourage the growing conviction in Aden that merger with the north was a mistake - especially now that southern Yemen is developing its own modest but significant oil reserves.

In recent months there were independent reports that southern Yemen was suddenly flush with money while Sana was enduring shortages - a reversal of the norm. Northern leaders were accusing unnamed forces in the region of pouring money and arms into the south, using language that invariably pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia. And despite recent attempts by Arab intermediaries in Jordan to reconcile the two Yemeni leaders, Beidh still refuses to take up his position as vice president in Sana.

Currently, a delegation from the Arab League is in Sana attempting to mediate between the two sides. Saleh has refused to meet with the delegation, leaving that to his prime minister, indicating that he is not interested in a negotiated settlement. On Friday, the Sana leadership rejected an eight-point southern peace proposal saying there was nothing new in it, and that it had been made ``to blackmail world opinion ... and waste time.''

Despite Saleh's apparent intention to impose a military solution, no observer of Yemen accepts that this could be easy or swift. Yemenis are reputed to be the most heavily armed people in the world. Most Yemeni men would buy an AK-47 before installing a water pump.

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