Aden, Yemen - Tens of thousands of people have descended on the southern Yemeni port town of Aden to agitate for seccession from a 24-year-old union with the north, hoping that recent turmoil in the capital Sana'a has created an opening for a movement that has struggled in the past.

Pro-independence campaigners have been gathering from across the south over the past two days in preparation for what the leaders of Al-Hirak al-Janoubi, or the Southern movement, say will be the biggest rally in the group's history. It is timed to coincide with the 51st anniversary of an uprising that ultimately led to the withdrawal of British colonial forces from Yemen.

At a gathering in Al-Orod square in the northern Khormaksar district on Monday, thousands of people gathered in a show of force before the main rally, chanting demands for independence and hoisting the flag of the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which was dissolved after a 1990 merger with north Yemen.

"We have come for our rights, to demand independence, the right to self-determination," Ahmed, a 19-year-old Hirak activist, said over the din of the crowd.


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Hirak was formed seven years ago and has held regular rallies in Aden for much of the past four years. Yet despite the radical changes that came to the rest of the region during 2011, including the ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the group has struggled to gain traction - in part due to the inability of its leadership to form a unified front and, many of its members say, because it has refused to take up arms.

The group claims that southerners have been marginalised politically and economically since an abortive attempt in 1994 to break up the union, and that northerners have stolen the country's natural resources.

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Leading members of the movement believe that recent turmoil in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, may have created an opening for a credible push for independence. On September 21, Houthi rebels seized Sana'a after four days of heavy fighting with the military and tribal and Islamist militias. The group, which also uses the name Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God, was handed a key role in decision-making around the appointment of a new cabinet in which its members will likely be given important positions.

"The protest comes at a sensitive time," said Fadi Baoum, the leader of a pro-independence youth group whose father, Hassan, is one of Hirak's most prominent leaders. "Ansar Allah has its revolution in the north… This is an opportunity that will not come again, to end Yemeni colonialism. The regime in Sana'a is very weak. We can save our land and become independent."

Leading members of several factions of Hirak have said they will announce during the rally that they are setting a November 30 deadline for Sana'a and the international community to meet their demands, although the exact nature of those demands and the likely outcome of a failure to meet them remain unclear because of the fissiparous nature of the movement.

"We can accept a number of solutions," said Ali Baharoon, a member of the newly formed National Salvation Council, led by another prominent Hirak leader, Mohammed Ali Ahmed. "If it is a two-region federal model followed by a referendum on independence, that's probably the best route. The normal thing is to have a transition, to take normal steps, like in Scotland."

But Baoum - who may soon join the council, aimed at coordinating with the security services and local authorities to secure key infrastructure in the event of further crisis in the north - says he will accept nothing less than independence, highlighting internal divisions within the movement. "This is not an option," he said of a phased federal model followed by a referendum.


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Yemen's embattled president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, himself a southerner, sent his son Jalal to meet with Hiraki leaders in recent weeks in an attempt to dampen the group's call for secession, and to bolster waning support for his presidency. Officials in Sana'a had hoped that the appointment of Khaled Bahah, Yemen's UN representative and a southerner, as prime minister on Monday would be seen as a conciliatory move. A week earlier, Hadi's pick for the position, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, was vetoed by the Houthis and the General People's Congress, Hadi's own party, leading him to step down 24 hours after being appointed. Some observers in Sana'a worried the move would be seen as a snub to southerners.

But many in Aden see another appointment - of Yassin Makkawi, an ostensible Hirak member, as Hadi's presidential adviser in September - as a bigger issue. "He's a joke, just a puppet for the president who has no real relation to Hirak," said one secessionist.

The UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned in meetings with the UN Security Council in New York on Monday that the country's political transition to democracy was "at risk of collapsing" following the Houthi takeover of the capital, and called for Bahah to take "swift action" to form a new government.

Source: Al Jazeera