Southern activist dies in shoot-out after burning effigy of President Saleh
On Monday, Yemeni authorities announced the death of Ali Saleh al Yafie, labeled by authorities as an al Qaeda operative. Two soldiers and several members of al Yafie’s family were also killed in the pre-dawn raid on his home in Abyan, including a seven year-old granddaughter.
Al Yafie was an activist in the populist movement which calls for the independence of southern Yemen. On Sunday, al Yafie burned an effigy of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during an anti-government rally in Zanzibar, Abyan. Activists allege that Monday’s deadly raid was in retaliation for al Yafie’s actions at the demonstration. His family said he had no relation to al Qaeda.
Yemeni authorities often conflate domestic political opposition with al Qaeda in a bid to gain international backing. Sana’a repeatedly accused both the northern Houthi rebels and the southern secessionists of links to al Qaeda, however the central government of Ali Abdullah Saleh itself has struck numerous deals with al Qaeda’s leadership and operatives over the last decades.
The New York Times reported last week rhat Osama bin Laden supplied weapons, ammunition and fighters from abroad to bolster the military efforts of the Saleh regime in 1994’s civil war. Saleh also deployed jihaddists in the five year northern Sa’ada War that began in 2004.
According to al Eshteraki, the website of the Socialist Party, witnesses to the raid said security forces took cover in the minaret of a mosque near al Yafie’s home and opened fire on the house with machine guns, RPG’s and tear gas. Al Yafie and his sons returned fire. Al Yafie’s wife and daughter were injured in the shoot-out and hospitalized. His son was arrested.
The incident is the latest in an ongoing stream of fatalities in south Yemen where mass protests began in 2007 calling for equal rights. Over 100 unarmed protesters have been killed during protests since then and over a thousand arrested including political leaders, journalists, children and activists. The deaths and arrests triggered new protests as the cycle of state violence and civil unrest engulfed the region.
Protesters claim they were denied equal rights and opportunities after north and south Yemen unified into a single state in 1990. Government overtures to lessen tensions have been half-hearted and sporadic. In 2007, the central government said it would pay military pensions overdue by a decade in return for a pledge by former military officers to refrain from peaceful political activity. The offer was rejected.
The movement is loosely organized and generally pledges allegiance to the former president of South Yemen, Ali Salem al Beidh, who said on Wednesday that unity had “failed completely,” Radio Sawa reported. Al Beidh, who was exiled to Oman following the civil war, condemned the state’s violence against the protesters and warned that “things cannot go on as they are.”
Demonstrations continued this week throughout the south as police arrested over 100 southern activists. Yemen has thousands of political prisoners of all stripes in jail, and many are subjected to torture.
In February, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), in concert with 24 other rights groups, said the Yemeni government was habitually “taking brutal retaliatory actions against human rights defenders, journalists and critics of the regime’s policies.” In the statement IFEX called on Yemen’s government to end kidnappings, forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests.
On Wednesday, the US Department of State Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said in an interview to official al-Thawra, the crisis in the south is an internal affair, but he said issues behind the crisis should be solved.