SANAA - Yemen’s southern separatists have emerged as a major challenge for Yemen, which is facing uncharted waters as the rule of long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh ends.

The Southern Movement boycotted Tuesday’s referendum to endorse Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi as transitional president for two years, saying it did not meet their aspirations for autonomy or even independence.

That led to polling stations being attacked across the south in violence that killed 10 people.

Some factions of the Southern Movement want autonomy for the once-independent south, but more hardline groups among the coalition are pressing for complete independence again.

Residents and authorities accused the southern militants of carrying out the attacks, but its leaders insisted their movement is a peaceful one, and accused forces still loyal to Saleh of trying to destabilise the south.

“The question of the south is one of the most difficult and the most important issues for the new government to address,” said April Longley Alley, a senior International Crisis Group analyst. “Until now, the Southern Movement has been largely excluded from the political process in Sanaa, but now is the time to redouble efforts to include them in the national dialogue,” the Yemen-based analyst told AFP.

During the two-year interim period, Hadi is to launch a national dialogue with youth leaders who led the protest movement, Shiite rebels in the north and the southerners, under a Gulf-brokered deal that led to Saleh agreeing to step down.

Dialogue will be followed by legislative and presidential elections. Qassem Askar, who leads the hardline faction of the Southern Movement, told AFP “the goal of the southerners is to break free from occupation” by northerners. People in the south complain of discrimination by the Sanaa government in the distribution of resources since the union between north and south in 1990. The south broke away again in 1994, sparking a brief civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.

Yemen’s outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh is to return home from the United States to take part in the inauguration of his successor and to lead his party, the party spokesman said on Wednesday.

“President Saleh is on his way back but I cannot give an exact date for his arrival in Sanaa,” said Abdo Janadi, Yemen’s deputy information minister and spokesman of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party.

“There will be a grand celebration to inaugurate Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi and he will be handed over the presidential palace,” Janadi said.

Political sources in Sanaa said the inauguration would take place on February 27 or 28.

Saleh, who gave up power in return for immunity from prosecution based on the deal, has been in the United States since January 29 for treatment of burn wounds he suffered when his presidential palace was attacked in June.

Rights groups have been pressing the United States to prosecute the 69-year-old whose troops and loyalists killed hundreds in a nationwide crackdown on anti-regime protests.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that Saleh was in California and would enjoy diplomatic immunity until Hadi was inaugurated.

When asked about Saleh’s future as a politician, Janadi said the outgoing president would remain as “head of the GPC, which is the largest political party in Yemen.”

“Nothing in the Gulf deal prevents him (Saleh) from running as a candidate (in presidential elections) after two years,” said Janadi.

The transitional period under the UN-backed Gulf accord which hands over the presidency to Hadi is to lead to legislative and presidential elections in two years.