In a power struggle among the top leaders of Marxist South Yemen, the hard-line faction appears to be gaining strength, according to American government officials and North Yemeni sources.
Though both factions are pro-Soviet, the moderates want good ties with and economic aid from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states, while the hard-liners want to move closer to Moscow, even at the expense of losing aid from the Saudis , Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
The top moderate, Ali Nasir Muhammad, has led South Yemen since April 1980, when he ousted hard-line leader Abd al-Fattah Ismail in a bloodless coup.
But the hard-liners gained clout last May when four of them, including Defense Minister Salih Muslih Qasim, joined the party Politburo. Three new ministers, all reportedly hard-liners, also took office in May. In a possible sign of Soviet support for Mr. Qasim, he met with Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov and other military officials in August.
However, South Yemeni leader Muhammad met in Moscow on Tuesday with Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, a meeting which could signal an effort by Muhammad to ensure Soviet support for him.
South Yemen is important to the Soviets because of its location both on the oil-rich Arabian peninsula and overlooking the Bab al Mandab strait. The Soviets maintain air and naval facilities in South Yemen. South Yemen is also the only Arab nation with a ruling Marxist-Leninist party, and is thus Moscow's closest Arab ally.
Why would the Soviets want to see Ali Nasir Muhammad overthrown? It is not that they fear he will oust the Soviets; Muhammad has worked closely with them for more than 15 years. Moscow may fear, though, that his contacts with the West and conservative Arabs may lead to a growth of Western influence in South Yemen and eventually threaten the Soviet position there.
However, it is not clear that the Soviets actually want Muhammad to be replaced. They may want the South Yemeni hard-liners to gain just enough strength to reduce South Yemen's contacts with the West, but not enough for them to take power and scare South Yemen's neighbors into inviting a stronger Western presence.
If the hard-liners do regain power, US officials in Washington fear they will attempt to revive Marxist insurgencies in North Yemen and Oman. The governments of these nations, however, are strong. Any attempt to revive these insurgencies would probably fail.