AFP head Yemeni supporters of the separatist Southern Movement gather in the southern city of Aden on February 27 2015, during a protest demanding for independece of the south. Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi met the previous day with UN envoy Jamal Benomar in Aden, as the southern city increasingly became the country’s de facto political and diplomatic capital instead of militia-held Sanaa. AFP PHOTO / STR Image Credit: AFP

Aden: A replica Big Ben still looks down on the harbour. Queen Victoria casts a dour gaze from her bronzed throne in a patch of green fronting the port.

But this one-time jewel of the British Empire has fallen on hard times — and now seethes with sedition as Yemen lurches toward civil war and possible disintegration.

The return last week of ousted President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a southerner, after weeks of house arrest in the capital, Sana’a, has done little to quell separatist sentiment in Yemen’s south.

Blue-tinged flags of an erstwhile new independent nation are ubiquitous. Gaggles of pro-independence protesters march on the streets. Separatist slogans line the walls. Talk of rebellion is rampant.

“If there is no secession, then this area will become the biggest conflict in the Middle East — bigger than Iraq or Syria,” warned Mohammad Nasser Hattab, who heads a “popular committee” militia that has commandeered a police station across from the tattered park where a stolid and plump Victoria still observes the horizon.

“The situation has gotten to the point that it is us or them on this land,” said Nasser, amid nods of agreement from fellow militiamen with Kalashnikovs and checkered head scarves gathered on the second floor of a dingy police precinct office in the port-side Tawahi district, known as Steamer Point during British rule.

This fractured nation of 26 million has many hot spots in the aftermath of the fall of the capital, Sana’a, to the northern-based Al Houthi faction. The Al Houthis overran the capital in September and consolidated control in recent weeks, placing Hadi and others in his administration under house arrest and dissolving parliament.

The emergence of the Al Houthis, who are allies of Iran, threatens to turn Yemen into yet another geopolitical battleground with profound implications for US policy. The nation has until now been relatively free of the sectarian-fuelled violence that has ravaged Iraq and Syria.

Fostering stability in the country has been a major goal of the Obama administration, which has touted Yemen as a success of its counter-terrorism strategy. The nation is home to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), regarded as among the most potent of the global terrorist network’s branches. US drone strikes continue to hit Al Qaida targets in Yemen, despite the Al Houthi takeover.

The port of Aden, still bustling but much depleted since its colonial era days as one of the world’s busiest harbours, was the site of a signature Al Qaida attack: The 2000 strike on the US destroyer Cole that left 17 US service members dead and 39 wounded.

The Al Houthis have vowed to destroy Al Qaida since the terrorists have repeatedly targeted them. But others argue that the Al Houthi advance has become an Al Qaida recruiting bonanza, drawing in Sunni youth and tribesmen.

“Many tribes had abandoned Al Qaida, but the arrival of Al Houthis in Sana’a pushed the tribes back to Al Qaida,” Aden’s Governor Abdul Aziz Bin Habtoor said in an interview in Aden.

To the east of Sana’a, Sunni tribes, some allied with Al Qaida, are arming against a possible Al Houthi thrust into resource-rich Marib province, source of much of the nation’s oil and gas and its major energy infrastructure. Sunni tribal leaders have vowed to resist.

Meanwhile, the central government in Sana’a appears to have lost much of its control over the south.

Northern and southern Yemen were two countries until merging in 1990, but tensions between the two distinct regions never completely dissipated. Now, the nation’s political turmoil has given a renewed boost to the secessionist agenda.

The Al Houthis have relatively little support in the south. There is widespread disdain for what southerners call an Al Houthi power grab — though the Al Houthis insist that their goal is a democratic and united state in which all regions are represented.

Hadi, a former general, as well as a former vice-president under longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, fled from house arrest and arrived in Aden.

Many in Aden were outraged that Hadi did not embrace secession upon his return. Instead, he pledged to work toward a political settlement to maintain a unified Yemen — the goal of United Nations-brokered talks.

“The situation is very dangerous now,” said Mohsin Mohammad Bin Farid, who heads a coalition seeking to create “South Arabia” among eight southern provinces. “The people of the south were hoping that Hadi would be with us, be with independence.”

Although Hadi has many supporters in Aden, street protesters greeted his statement of unity with the chant: “Hadi, you are contemptible, the blood of the sons of the south is not cheap.”

So-called popular committee militiamen, on the payroll of political factions and tribes, have set up checkpoints and usurped the security services in parts of the south, including Aden. They bristle with indignation at the idea of Al Houthi-led rule.

“They [Al Houthis] do not represent a Yemeni point of view,” said Nasser, the popular committee commander near the port, in an apparent reference to Al Houthis’ links to Iran. “They are influenced by external dictates.”

The future role of Hadi, backed by the United States and its Gulf allies, remains a question mark. Hadi appears to have rescinded his resignation from the presidency — tendered on January 22 while he was under house arrest — and signalled that he favours continued dialogue among all of Yemen’s factions to keep the nation intact. His allies insist that most southerners prefer to remain part of Yemen.

“The great majority of people in the south support the idea of unity and adhere to the concept of a federal state,” said Bin Habtoor, the Aden governor, who spoke after meeting with the president in Aden.

But Hadi insists that all appointments and government actions made since September 21, when the Al Houthis overran Sana’a, are null and void. The governor also said talks should be moved from Al Houthi-controlled Sana’a to Aden.

“Al Houthi forcibly seized power with the gun and he must relinquish power whether he wants to or not,” said Bin Habtoor.

In Sana’a, however, the Al Houthis have showed no sign of pulling back. With regional, sectarian and tribal tensions rising, the prospect for compromise appears to be narrowing.

“What we see in Yemen is a potential humanitarian crisis, the prospect of economic collapse, and possible areas of conflict,” Jamal Bin Omar, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said in an interview in Sana’a. “The prospect for fragmentation is clearly there. We are saying that there is no other way but for all the political parties to come together and make a deal sometime soon.”

— Los Angeles Times