ADEN, Yemen – The flag of once-independent South Yemen is visible everywhere around this port city, once the country's capital. The banner — red, white, black and blue with a red star — is painted on walls, flown from homes, and flutters from the vehicles and checkpoints of militiamen in the streets.
"We want freedom," declares an English-language slogan spray-painted on a wall on a main road. Another proclaims: "The Free South."
Calls among southern Yemenis to break away once more are accelerating as the country collapses into conflict. Shiite rebels known as Houthis have taken over the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north, and are storming south in a bid to secure their hold on the country. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was first driven out of Sanaa, then tried to make a last stand in the southern city of Aden. But on Wednesday, he fled the city — and the country.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia began launching airstrikes in Yemen in a bid to oust the Houthi rebels from their strongholds.
Hadi's supporters remain behind, including army units loyal to him and militiamen. But many in the south are likely to fight not so much to try to restore Hadi's rule but to carve out their independence. Fueling the separatist sentiment in the almost completely Sunni south is the widespread belief that the Houthis are proxies for Shiite powerhouse Iran to dominate the country. Moreover, the Houthis' top ally is Yemen's former autocratic leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for nearly 40 years until his ouster in 2011 and was widely hated in the south.
Already, members of the "Southern Movement," the main pro-independence group, have joined pro-Hadi militiamen and military forces in their defense against the rebels, according to Shafie al-Abd, an activist and a prominent member of the movement.
"It is our duty to defend the south. It's a fight that may eventually become one for liberation and independence," he said. "We in the movement will abandon our peaceful means and take up arms against the Houthis."
North vs South is not the only faultline along which Yemen can fall apart. Equally dangerous are sectarian divisions, which traditionally were long dormant in Yemen. Around 30 percent of the population is Shiite — belonging to the Zaidi branch of Shiism, which is almost only found in Yemen — and the rest are Sunnis. Already, some Sunni tribesmen in the north are fighting back against Houthi domination, some of them by allying with al-Qaida, some backed by neighboring Saudi Arabia. Also, the military and government are fragmented from city to city across the country, some units and officials backing Saleh or Houthis, some backing Hadi.
Many southerners may feel they are better off by breaking away. But they likely would have to fight the tough advance by the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Many of the country's best trained and equipped military units remained loyal to Saleh since his 2011 ouster and are fighting alongside Houthis now.
"The crisis in Yemen is far greater now than the issue of the south," said southern activist Zeid al-Salamy. "The option of a 'war of independence' is more likely now."
After more than 100 years of British colonial rule, South Yemen, with Aden as its capital, was an independent country from 1967 and 1990, ruled by a communist government. Southerners also see themselves as culturally different from the north, which they view as more tribal and more religiously conservative — though in the past two decades, the south has moved away from its secular traditions — now significant numbers of men boast beards and women can be seen wearing black veils, signs of conservative Islam.
The impending showdown evokes memories of Yemen's ruinous 1994 war, when Saleh's government in the north crushed an attempt by the south to break away again, just four years after the two were united.
"Secession will comfort the southerners after years of suffering since the union," said Salwa Mobarak Amber, who served as an adviser to Saleh for some 15 years in Sanaa and is now the head of an Aden-based research center, al-Masar.
"Now that Iran is involved in the north in support of the Houthis, we definitely need our independence. There will be war in the north," said the British-educated Amber.
Hadi is a southerner. Still, even as he fled to Aden last month, Hadi insisted that his resistance to the Houthis was aimed at keeping a unified nation. Speaking to The Associated Press in Aden, one of Hadi's advisers, Sultan al-Atwani, acknowledged that recent developments in Yemen point to secession as one likely outcome, but he warned against it.
"The dangers in Yemen today will not allow the emergence of a clearly separate south and north," he said. "Yemen's future is in its unity and anyone campaigning for secession now is being superficial."
But that stance could be overtaken by events. Political leaders of the south, long at sharp odds over ideology and conflicting interests, are scheduled to meet soon in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to map out the way forward for their region. If the meeting takes place, it would be the first such meeting in more than 20 years.
And Hadi could find himself being pushed by southerners to lead the movement if the Houthi-Saleh alliance seals its control.
"Everyone respects him," Radfan al-Dubais, a senior figure in a grass-roots secessionist movement, told AP, arguing that Hadi could unite southern factions. "The south will emerge on the world stage under new management."