Thousands of supporters of hardline southern Yemen separatists rallied Sunday evening to protest at a national dialogue starting on Monday, demanding that their region be seceeded from the north.
Protesters carrying placards saying, "No dialogue under occupation! Independence is our choice!" demonstrated in the port city of Aden waving flags of the formerly independent South Yemen which was united with the north in 1990.
"We are here by the thousands to reject the dialogue as it is an issue of northerners and those southerners who are involved in it do not represent the people," Khaled Junaidi, an activist told AFP.
Yemeni authorities deployed police to protect government buildings and foreign consulates in the city, a security source said.
Activists said protesters also gathered in Moukalla, capital of the southeast Shabwa province.
The protests came after Aden, capital of the formerly independent south, was earlier Sunday paralysed by a six-hour general strike staged by the hardliners from the Southern Movement who are boycotting the UN-backed dialogue that begins on Monday and is to last for six months.
Several anti-dialogue slogans and calls for the secession of the south were smeared on walls of many buildings, in addition to displaying of flags of the former South Yemen in parts of the city.
"We refuse to participate in the national dialogue which is a betrayal of the revolution programme of the south," said Hussein Zein from the district of Maalla, a stronghold of hardliners in Aden.
Sunday's protest was organised by the hardline group led by former southern president Ali Salem al-Baid which is part of the Southern Movement. Baid's group calls for secession of south Yemen.
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The dialogue, originally scheduled to start in mid-November, was delayed mainly due to the refusal of factions in the Southern Movement -- campaigning for autonomy or secession for the region -- to join the dialogue.
The dialogue aims to draft a new constitution and prepare for general elections in February 2014 after a two-year transition led by President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
The dialogue should take place under a deal that eased former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office after an 11-month uprising against his 33-year rule.
Most factions have finally agreed to take part after months of negotiations and under UN pressure. But Baid's faction remains strongly against it insisting that the negotiations be held between two independent states in the north and south.
"It is a conspiracy against us by the international and regional community," said Qassem Askar, a leader from Baid's faction.
"Several people have not been informed that they were appointed to represent southerners in the talks and some have withdrawn. Others representing southerners are of northern origins," he told AFP.
In addition to Baid's faction, the dialogue is boycotted by the head of the Southern Movement's Supreme Council Hassan Baoum, the most powerful faction of the alliance.
The National Council for the People of the South led by Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates, and the National Democratic Coalition led by Khaled Baharun and Abdulrahman al-Jisri, are also boycotting the talks.
After North and South Yemen united in 1990, the south broke away in 1994. The secession triggered a short-lived civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.
In 2007, the Southern Movement emerged as a social protest movement of retired officials and soldiers. But it has gradually grown more radical in its demands.