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Aden: Thousands of south Yemenis demonstrated on Thursday in support of a governor sacked by the president in a blow to his authority and his efforts to keep together a motley loyalist coalition.

In his war with Iran-backed Al Houthi militants who control the capital Sana’a and much of the north, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has relied heavily on militia recruited in the formerly independent south, where separatist sentiment runs deep.

That has often forced him into a difficult balancing act with his other supporters - Sunni Islamists and loyalist army units from the north.

Thursday’s demonstrators converged on the region’s main city Aden, where Hadi’s government is based, from towns across the south.

Organisers called for sacked Aden governor Aidarous Al Zoubeidi to set up a “national leadership to represent the south” and pledged their allegiance to it, in a statement received by AFP.

Hadi dismissed Al Zoubeidi and state minister Hani Bin Breik on April 27 in a move that was widely seen as reflecting divisions among his supporters.

The two men, who are both believed to be close to southern self-rule activists, played a key role in restoring security to Aden and adjacent provinces after the rebels were pushed out in 2015.

But they have rivals among northern generals who remained loyal to Hadi and among Islamist militia.

The recapture of the south depended heavily on the support of a Saudi-led coalition, and both Al Zoubeidi and Bin Breik are reported to have close ties with one of its key members, the United Arab Emirates.

Hadi spends most of his time in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE is part of a coordination committee with the Yemeni government that has been set up there.

The south’s independence ended when it united with the north in 1990. Four years later, it launched a bloody separatist rebellion which culminated in its occupation by northern forces.

The scars of that war are still widely felt, feeding separatist sentiment.

Disgruntled southerners took to the streets of major south Yemen cities in 2007 to vent their anger over what they see as inequality and marginalisation by the northerners.

The southerners say that, after a civil war between south and north Yemen in 1994, the victorious northerners discharged thousands of military and civilian public servants and took control of the south’s oil wealth.

Since then, the southerners have carried out routine demonstrations repeating their demands.

To them, “regaining” their former state would bring back jobs and would enable them to take charge of their wealth.

Almost a decade later, southerner protests have yielded fruit and they are edging closer to their goal.

The Herak separatists have played a critical role in mobilising against the Al Houthi invasion and are currently in control of all the southern provinces.

In early 2015, Iran-backed Al Houthis who took over the capital months earlier, came very close to invading the southern city of Aden, the capital of former South Yemen and a seat of power for the separatists.

When Al Houthis reached the edges of Aden in March, Saudi Arabia and allied Arab countries kicked off a massive aerial bombardment to push them back.

Al Houthi opposition to southern separatists’ demands for years gave them reason to join the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Five months later, the separatists, Islamists and other factions, with the coalition’s help, expelled Al Houthis from what was once the South Yemen state.

But as they celebrated victory, Al Qaida, which had been lurking in the shadows because of the security vacuum, sought to exploit the situation. The militants quickly overran many major cities threatening to torpedo the separatists’ dream of regaining their lost state. With the coalition’s help, the separatists regrouped and launched a massive and coordinated military campaign to recapture their cities from Al Qaida.

Today, most of the south’s governors, army commanders, security chiefs and thousands of low-ranking soldiers are separatists through and through.

-With inputs from AFP