Yemen's rival armies turn on each other

Yemen's rival armies turn on each other

Originally published in The Guardian, 6 May 1994

Failure to unite the two forces lies behind the struggle which is destroying the country from the inside, write Ian Black and Brian Whitaker

ARMED forces from the two halves of a theoretically united Yemen hit some of each other's most important economic cornerstones yesterday. Airports, ports, power stations and oil facilities - vital to an economy bruised since the Gulf war - were attacked in bitter fighting now threatening to escalate into civil war.

The Yemen conflict is the result of a political crisis that began when the former Marxist south and the conservative north merged into one state in May 1990.

Twenty years of tense and sometimes violent relations between the Yemeni Arab Republic (North), supported by the West, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South), supported by the Soviet bloc, ended with the decision to share power. The former YAR leader, Ali Abdullah Salih, became president and his PDRY counterpart, Ali Salim al-Baidh, vice-president.

But their failure to achieve a full merger, especially between the armed forces, fuelled a simmering feud over how to rule the country, the poorest in the Arab world, with a population of nearly 13 million.

The first general elections took place a year ago and produced a coalition government between Mr Salih's General People's Congress, the Islah (Reform) party and Mr al-Baidh's Yemen Socialist Party. But crisis erupted in August 1993 after Mr al-Baidh boycotted the capital, Sana'a, and refused to be sworn in as vice-president. He has been in Aden, capital of the former south, ever since.

Internationally, Yemen is relatively isolated because of its sympathy for Iraq during the Gulf war and the loss of financial aid from wealthier Arab neighbours. A tradition of violence, political killings and riots means that the prospects for stability are not good. Mr al-Baidh says that more than 150 members of his party have been assassinated in the past four years.

In recent months numerous mediation attempts have failed. Jordan, Oman and Egypt, and on Wednesday, the US, have all tried. Saudi Arabia has been content to watch the situation deteriorate.

Experts say Mr al-Baidh would probably settle for a federation, but the president has vowed 'unity or death'.

"Things are pretty bad,' one Western diplomat said yesterday. 'It is now not impossible to see this as the beginning of the final split between the two Yemens.' Yemen's crisis is complicated by the fact that northern and southern armies were not merged after unification in 1990.

Instead, both sides exchanged some of their forces. Three southern units went north - to Dhamar, Amran and Sa'ada - but continued to be controlled by the Socialists.

Earlier this year the Socialists sought to recall their forces but the north refused. Stalemate persisted, but now the north appears to be trying to break the political deadlock by picking off the southern units one by one.

Last week it routed and dispersed the south's Third Armoured Brigade in Amran. This week the president's elite Republican Guard apparently wiped out the southern unit at Dhamar in a rocket, tank and artillery attack.

The Republican Guard, Iraqi-trained and similar to Saddam Hussein's unit of the same name, has helped to keep President Salih in power for 15 years. It is separate from the ordinary army and is usually kept in reserve for the direst emergencies.

By moving it away from the capital to fight southern forces in Dhamar, the president left Sana'a more vulnerable than usual - which may explain the timing of the south's air strikes.

Meanwhile, the Socialists have been courting disaffected tribes in the north - notably the Bakil - who may yet provide an extra dimension to the conflict.

Large-scale tribal involvement would almost certainly plunge Yemen into a full-scale and prolonged civil war.

Worse still, what at present is a two-way fight between northern and southern leaders could turn into total fragmentation of the country on the lines of Yugoslavia or Somalia.