updated 5/14/2009 10:54:11 AM ET 2009-05-14T14:54:11

An al-Qaida leader urged divided Yemenis to unite and fight the country's government, and called its president an "infidel agent" in an audio message released Thursday.

The recording, purportedly of Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi — Yemen's most wanted fugitive and the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen and Saudi Arabia — called on northerners and southerners to put their differences aside and focus on battling the government.

Impoverished Yemen, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has re-emerged as a potential base for al-Qaida, though its government has cooperated with the United States in fighting terrorism. The country has also suffered renewed tension in its south, which fought a civil war with the north in 1994.

The authenticity of the recording, posted on militant Web sites, could not be verified. There was no independent confirmation the voice was that of al-Wahishi, also known by his nickname Abu Baseer, although it sounded like the voice heard on previous audiotapes.

Al-Wahishi was once a close aide to Osama bin Laden. He escaped a Yemeni prison in 2006 and has emerged as the leader of a formation that includes al-Qaida in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaida has been blamed for several attacks in Yemen, including the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden that killed 17 American sailors.

'Tyranny'
In the 10-minute recording, al-Wahishi lashed out at Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Saleh is an infidel agent who abolished the Sharia law ... and today he uses all sorts of tyranny under the pretext of keeping the unity of the land," al-Wahishi said.

"We are one nation, neither northerners, nor southerners," added al-Wahishi. "We (al-Qaida) have been fighting this regime for years ... we know better than anybody all the oppressive, repressive and corrupt practices of the regime."

The recording came as Yemen's south has been gripped by violence that has claimed the lives of 10 soldiers and three civilians in clashes between security forces and southern tribesmen who accuse the government of discrimination and marginalization.

The recent violence started on April 27, the anniversary of the 1994 southern separatist uprising that was crushed by government troops. North and South Yemen first merged in 1990.

Saleh sent tanks and troops to the south in response to daily anti-government protests. Opposition parties, meanwhile, accused the soldiers of shelling farms and houses across the south, where some armed tribesmen staged hit-and-run attacks on the troops. The government also suspended eight publications for allegedly inciting southern residents to call for a separation from the north.

Large swaths of the mountainous, desert Yemen — bin Laden's ancestral homeland — are mostly lawless and beyond control of the central government.

More on Yemen   |  al-Qaida

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