Leading Article: A war that should not be ignored

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IT IS tempting to dismiss the civil war in Yemen as a faraway event in which casualties have so far been relatively low and where little is at stake for the West. Apart from being heartless, such reactions ignore Britain's contribution to Yemen's history, and thus to the present conflict. They also overlook that country's courageous recent attempts to forge a democracy out of two states with very different ideological pasts.

It was the British who set the stage for current events by making Aden - an important entrepot port - a colony in 1935. Behind it stretched the Eastern and Western Protectorate States, collectively known as the Protectorate. Relations with the contiguous State of the Yemen, later Yemen Arab Republic, were always delicate: the larger state naturally resented this colonial enclave with its valuable and strategically placed port.

Aden and the Protectorate achieved independence in 1967 only after the loss of many British and Yemeni lives. The new state reacted to freedom by embracing Marxism and becoming the People's Republic of South Yemen, heavily dependent on Soviet and East European support. That, too, did not please those across the border in the traditionalist and more tribal North Yemen.

So it was all the more remarkable when, in May 1990, the north and south agreed to their union. True, the motives on both sides were not wholly idealistic: the collapse of the Soviet Union had left the government of Ali Salem al-Beidh in the south looking both exposed and economically parlous. In the north, General Ali Abdullah Saleh faced demands for greater democracy; and there were problems with the south over the exploitation of oil reserves in areas claimed by both states. The local economy was sharply depressed by the expulsion from Saudi Arabia of almost 1 million Yemeni migrant workers with a resulting loss of foreign exhange earnings and increase in unemployment. That move was prompted by Yemen's reluctance to support the Western alliance against Saddam Hussein. Yet, in April 1993, Yemen staged one of the few relatively free elections held in the Arab world.

Subsequent events, including the unsolved assassinations of numerous aides, seem to have convinced Mr al- Beidh that General Saleh in the north was trying to marginalise him and, in effect, annex the south. In August 1993 he left the capital, Sanaa, and returned to Aden. Last week, low-level skirmishes between the two armies, which had never been integrated, flared into a north-south civil war that now involves Scud and other missiles.

Thus has crumbled a serious attempt by two Arab states to bury their old antagonisms, jointly exploit their oil and gas reserves, and forge a more or less democratic country. Probably that ambition did not please the neighbouring Saudis, who are suspected of having fomented divisions between north and south. Certainly it did not seem greatly to interest the West, which gives priority to ingratiating itself with the arms-buying, oil-exporting Saudis. It is not too late to make amends by doing everything possible to foster a negotiated rather than a military solution - and then following through with carefully targeted aid.