By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - The Yemeni government on Wednesday issued a public apology to southern separatists and northern Shi'ite Muslim rebels for wars waged against them during former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule.
The apology, made in a cabinet statement read out on state television, comes amid national reconciliation talks launched in March to address grievances by large segments of the population. Delegates aim to chart major constitutional and administrative reforms ahead of national elections next year.
"The government apologizes for the war of the summer of 1994 and what the previous government did against the southerners, considering that a historic mistake that cannot be repeated," the statement said.
It also apologized to residents of northern Saada province over repeated military campaigns that Saleh's administration launched against rebels there between 2004 and 2010.
Civil war broke out between North Yemen and the former Marxist south in 1994, four years after the two countries merged into one state. Its consequences have fuelled secessionist demands for separation.
Southern Yemenis have long complained of discrimination by the North, including the dismissals of tens of thousands of people from state jobs, seizure of state assets and private property and the withholding of state pensions from families of soldiers killed in the conflict.
Saleh battled northern Shi'ite rebels seeking the restoration of the Zaidi imamate that ruled much of modern Yemen before it was overthrown in 1962. Thousands died in the fighting, which ended with a truce in 2010.
The statement said the apology was required under a deal brokered by Gulf states that paved the way for Saleh to step down in 2011 after months of unrest and hand the reins of power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Fahmy al-Saqaf, a leader in the southern secessionist Herak movement, said the apology, though long overdue, was an important step.
"But what is more important is what comes after the apology, and what we fear is that the (reconciliation) dialogue ends without implementing southern demands," Saqaf told Reuters.
Herak representatives recently suspended their participation in the reconciliation talks, demanding that the government make good on promises to restore seized property and return sacked state employees to their jobs.
The reconciliation conference is scheduled to present final reports on proposed reforms next month.
Restoring stability to Yemen, a U.S.-allied country which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, is an international concern after years of turmoil that has persisted despite Saleh's departure.
(Reporting by Mohamed Ghobari; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Andrew Roche)