TAEZ, Yemen — Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Friday extended an olive branch to the opposition, offering to form a national unity government and announcing an amnesty for imprisoned southern separatists and Shiite rebels.
In a televised speech ahead of Saturday's 20th anniversary of Yemen's unification, Saleh invited all political groups inside and outside the country to a "responsible national dialogue, within the framework of the constitutional institutions."
"According to this dialogue, it is possible to form a government of all the influential political parties represented in the parliament," said Saleh, speaking in the city of Taez, 230 kilometres (140 miles) southwest of Sanaa.
Saleh said his government would "release all those who were arrested."
He said the amnesty would apply to "all outlaws" -- a reference to the southern separatists, and "anti-government elements who were arrested" in the north, where the Shiite rebels are based on the border with Saudi Arabia.
The pardon would affect an estimated 800 prisoners linked to the southern separatists and about 2,000 Shiite rebels or sympathisers in the north.
Saleh said that the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which is agitating to re-establish south Yemen as an independent state, would be a principal partner in the political dialogue.
The YSP was the main partner of the May 22, 1990 unification with the north, but it is now in opposition and most of its leaders live in exile.
Other major opposition parties in parliament include the Islamist Al-Islah party, popular among tribesmen who form the backbone of Yemen's traditional society.
Pro-independence demonstrations have multiplied in the south in recent months amid a worsening economic situation and charges of discrimination in favour of northerners.
South Yemen was independent from the British withdrawal in 1967 until it united with the north in 1990. An attempt to break away again in 1994 sparked a short-lived civil war that ended with it being overrun by northern troops.
In a gesture of appeasement, Saleh declared a general amnesty for ""all" prisoners in the country with ties to the southern separatists or to Shiite rebels in the north.
After the Zaidi Shiite rebels first launched their uprising in 2004, there were five lulls in the fighting before the government launched a major offensive last August that ended with a truce in February.
The fighting reportedly killed thousands of people and displaced 250,000 more.
Saleh's government is battling a raft of challenges in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest country.
These include the southern and northern rebellions, restless armed tribesmen who periodically kidnap foreigners for ransom, a resurgent Al-Qaeda and Western pressure to quash the Islamic radicals.