Thursday, December 31, 2009

Yemen 'can handle al-Qaeda menace'

The Yemeni government has vowed to deal with the "menace of al-Qaeda in Yemen" after the group claimed responsibility for a plot to bring down an aircraft bound for the US city of Detroit on Christmas.

Saying his government would not authorise or co-operate with any potential US strike on its soil, Abdullah Alsaidi, Yemen's permanent representative to the United Nations, told Al Jazeera that his country "is capable of taking care of its own problems".

Alsaidi welcomed co-operation with and assistance from the US "with respect to intelligence information", saying it was necessary to Yemen's battle against al-Qaeda.

But he added that "we are not encouraging US attacks, we are saying that Yemen will take care of this problem on its own".

On Wednesday, Yemeni security forces raided an alleged al-Qaeda hideout in a western province, sparking a gun battle with fighters.

A security official speaking on condition of anonymity said the target was a house owned by an al-Qaeda sympathiser.

The official said the owner was arrested, a suspected al-Qaeda member was injured and several fighters who fled were being pursued.

Brigadier-General Saleh al-Zawari, Yemen's deputy interior minister, told senior military officials that the interior ministry "will continue tracking down al-Qaeda terrorists and will continue its strikes against the group until it is totally eliminated".

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian passenger, was arrested last Friday on suspicion of trying to bring down the Northwest Airlines aircraft carrying 289 people.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's group based in Yemen, claimed it was behind the attempt.

US investigators said Abdulmutallab told them he received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Yemen's government said Abdulmutallab spent two periods in the country, from 2004-2005 and from August to December this year, just before the attempted attack.

And Alsaidi told Al Jazeera that Abdulmutallab "was probably in touch with terror cells" in Yemen, although the envoy denied that the explosives from the failed attack came from his country, saying Abdulmutallab "most likely picked them up somewhere else".

"I have also heard from other governments that he picked them up in other African countries closer to Nigeria," he said.

Abdulmutallab's Yemen connection has drawn attention to al-Qaeda's presence in the country.

Before Wednesday's clashes, Yemeni forces backed by US intelligence carried out two major strikes against al-Qaeda hideouts this month, reportedly killing more than 60 fighters.

The US has increasingly provided intelligence, surveillance and training to Yemeni forces in the past year, and has provided some firepower, according to a senior US defence official, who requested anonymity.

Bryan Whitman, a US defence department spokesman, said Yemen received $67m in training and support under the Pentagon's counterterrorism programme last year, second only to $112m spent in Pakistan.

"We are going to work with allies and partners to seek out terrorist activity, al-Qaeda, wherever they operate, plan their operations, seek safe harbour," he said, adding that "this is an effort that is years old now".

But US officials downplayed reports that retaliatory strikes in Yemen would be launched.

"These reports are inflammatory and do not address the issue," Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador to Yemen, told Al Jazeera, adding that "we need to understand the size, configuration of the al-Qaeda presence in Yemen".

"Any moves would be better done by the Yemen military. Conducting air strikes would not help either, as you would end up with collateral damage. Actions such as these are merely reactionary, but not aimed at solving the problem," she said.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama, the US president, has demanded a preliminary report by Thursday on the security lapses in the plane bomb plot.

He said the intelligence community should have been able to piece together information that would have raised "red flags" and possibly prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding the airliner.

Abdulmutallab had been placed in one broad database but never made it on to more restrictive lists, despite his father's warnings to US embassy officials in Nigeria last month.

The failed attack in Detroit was launched almost a year after al-Qaeda's operations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia united to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, making Yemen its base.

Al Jazeera

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