The U.N. envoy to Yemen has accused members of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government of obstructing reconciliation talks aimed at completing a power transfer deal, and called for international support for the current administration.
A Saleh aide denied his camp was undermining the talks and said that the United Nations envoy, Jamal Benomar, had become a burden on the transition process.
The Conference of National Reconciliation, launched in March as part of a 2011 Gulf-brokered power transfer deal that eased long-serving Saleh out of office, has been struggling with demands by separatists from what was South Yemen, which merged with North Yemen in 1990.
A group of separatists led by Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a former interior minister, quit the talks on Wednesday, dimming prospects that the conference might deliver a new constitution in time for elections orginally expected to be held in February.
U.N. envoy Benomar, who briefed the U.N. Security Council on the situation on Wednesday, has said interim President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, elected for a two-year period in 2012, should stay on longer if the new constitution is not ready by then.
He said a "well-funded, relentless and malicious media campaign" was undermining the talks by pushing the view that Hadi must either seek a new mandate or leave office in February. "Some elements of the former regime believe they can turn back the clock," Benomar said in a statement issued after briefing the Security Council. The statement was received by Reuters by email on Thursday.
Benomar said attempts to obstruct the talks were a "persistent source of instability". Some people close to Saleh have hinted that he may seek to return to power in a future election. Saleh's secretary, Ahmed al-Sufi, said the former president's party objected to Benomar's comments.
"The General People's Congress rejects the use of terms like 'symbols of the old regime', because all those working in the current political landscape ... are from the old regime," Sufi told Reuters.
Instability in Yemen, home to one of the deadliest branches of al Qaeda and which shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, is an international concern. Apart from southern secessionist demands, Yemen is also grappling with a rebellion in the north, which flared last month into sectarian clashes between Sunni Salafis and Shi'ite Houthi rebels in which more than 100 people have died.
Benomar, who helped negotiate the 2011 power transfer deal, said that while Hadi was elected for a two-year interim period, his mandate was to deliver a set of democratic reforms and that more time was needed. "Yemen is trying to achieve a deep, democratic transformation in months - a process that took other countries years," Benomar said.
"Accomplishing the substantive tasks outlined in the Transition Agreement ... obviously take precedence over rigid adherence to an indicative timeline." Benomar also said the dialogue had begun to uncover the extent of discrimination suffered by people of south Yemen after the 1994 civil war, in which Saleh's forces crushed rebels seeking to break away from the union forged four years earlier.
Hadi's government has formally apologised over the 1994 civil war and agreed to return sacked civil servants and military officers to their old jobs.
Yemen has also set up a fund to compensate those who have been sacked. Benomar said a fund, launched recently with $350 million in contributions made by the Gulf Arab state of Qatar was "a timely step" in efforts to address southern grievances.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)