United Nations, Sep 23 (AP) The head of Yemen's Southern Transitional Council, an umbrella group of heavily armed and well-financed militias, has said that he will prioritise the creation of a separate country in negotiations with their rivals, the Houthi rebels.

Aidarous al-Zubaidi's comments, in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, come days after the conclusion of landmark talks in Riyadh between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition fighting them in the country's civil war. The remarks signal that his group might not get on board for a solution without inclusion of a separate state's creation.

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Al-Zubaidi has a dual role in Yemeni politics — he is vice president of the country but also the leader of a separatist group that has joined the internationally recognised coalition government seated in the southern city of Aden.

His trip to the high-level leaders meeting of the UN General Assembly was aimed at amplifying the call for southern separatism, which has taken a backseat to discussions aimed at ending the wider war. Earlier this year, the head of the country's internationally recognised government brushed aside the issue.

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Speaking to the AP on the sidelines, al-Zubaidi noted that the Riyadh talks were preliminary and said his transitional council is planning to participate at a later stage.

"We are asking for the return of the southern state, with complete sovereignty, and this will happen through beginning negotiations with the Houthis and the negotiations will be, surely, long," al-Zubaidi said in his 40th floor hotel suite towering over the UN compound. "This is the goal of our strategy for negotiations with the Houthis."

Yemen's war began in 2014 when the Houthis swept down from their northern stronghold and seized the capital, Sanaa, along with much of the country's north. In response, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power.

The five days of talks that ended Wednesday represented the highest-level, public negotiations with the Houthis in the kingdom. The conflict has become enmeshed in a wider regional proxy war the Saudi kingdom faced against longtime regional rival Iran.

Al-Zubaidi said he welcomed Saudi Arabia's effort to mediate, and that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been staunch allies throughout the long-running conflict. However the Gulf powers have at times found themselves on different sides of prolonged infighting, with the separatists at one point seizing control of Aden.

Asked directly whether the UAE had provided money or weapons, he did not specify.

While Al-Zubaidi repeatedly stressed that the Yemeni government's priority is establishment of a southern state, with the same borders that existed before the 1990 Yemeni unification, he acknowledged that ultimately his people will decide. He said that, in accordance with international law, they will be able to vote in a referendum for alternatives including a single federal government.

"I am in New York and metres away from the headquarters of the United Nations, and we are only asking for what is stated, under the laws the United Nations made and on which it was founded," he said. "It is our right to return to the borders of before 1990." (AP)

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