SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's former president denounced southerners' demands for greater autonomy from the north as "treason," though his ruling party returned to negotiations tackling the issue on Saturday after walking out just days before over the proposal.
Southern Yemeni representatives in the talks with the north are seeking to turn the country into a two-member federal union that would give them greater powers. South Yemen was an independent state until unification in 1990, and a movement demanding outright independence continues to have influence there, with southerners complaining of discrimination by the north.
A failure to reach consensus in the north-south talks could plunge the impoverished Arab country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula into even more chaos by derailing its transition to democracy.
It also raises fears of more conflict. An attempt by the south to regain independence in 1994 was crushed in a three-month civil war by northern forces.
Yemen is facing huge problems on other fronts as well, with authorities leading a war against al-Qaida's local branch, considered by Washington as one of the world's most dangerous terror groups. Coordinated attacks by al-Qaida militants against security barracks and military posts in a southern Yemeni province on Friday killed at least 38 troops and wounded dozens.
Even though he was ousted after more than 30 years as president following an uprising against his rule in 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh still wields influence over the country's affairs as head of the ruling party.
Also, Saleh's loyalists still hold significant positions in the government of his successor and former vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Saleh told his family-owned TV channel "Yemen Today" in remarks aired on Saturday that southerners seek to divide the country with their demand for a two-member union.
"The establishment of a federal state based on two entities is treason, aimed at tearing the unity," Saleh said, adding that it is a "red line" that should not be crossed.
The north-south talks are part of a U.S-backed power-transfer deal that saw Saleh hand over power to Hadi.
The ruling General People's Congress party – of which both Saleh and Hadi are top members – walked out Monday on a 16-member committee tasked with finding a blueprint for the country's future makeup. The committee has an equal number of envoys from the north and south.
Mohammed Tahtan, a committee member from northern Yemen, said GPC returned to the talks on Saturday evening.
Officials close to the talks said Saleh's people returned "under international pressure," without elaborating. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.