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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 14:02 GMT
Yemen cautious on battle against al-Qaeda
Yemeni rebels
Yemeni rebels pay little attention to government orders
By Richard Engel in Yemen

FBI Director Robert Mueller was in Yemen on Monday as part of a Middle East tour designed to bolster Arab support and capability in the war against al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

We've lost about 19 of our soldiers basically because they didn't have bullet-proof vests

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi
The United States has begun to look beyond Afghanistan in the fight against al-Qaeda and much of the attention is being focused on countries like Yemen - a poor, mountainous nation on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula where militants have been able to hide.

The Yemeni Government says it has arrested two al-Qaeda militants named by the US, but that another three men on Washington's wanted list remain at large.

It has not been easy for Yemen to make arrests because the suspects enjoy the protection of powerful tribes who are armed and rarely take much notice of government orders.

Disastrous arrest attempt

Last month, 19 Yemeni soldiers were killed when they unsuccessfully tried to enter a village under tribal control and detain suspected members of al-Qaeda.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi says that with US promises of assistance against al-Qaeda, this kind of thing won't happen again.

America has committed itself to assist Yemen in training its security forces, political security as well as the anti-terrorism special forces

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi
"We've lost about 19 of our soldiers basically because they didn't have bullet-proof vests. The other thing is of course we needed some helicopters to take aerial views to be able to track these groups when they move around.

"We also need more efficient communication between our forces and to track any communication by the terrorists with any outside elements, pinpointing the locations, this is the type of support we are talking about," Mr Qirbi told the BBC.

US assistance

The foreign minister says that while Washington has not yet promised to provide such military hardware, it has pledged to help train Yemenis in counter-terrorism.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Yemen's President Saleh met the FBI's Robert Mueller
"America has committed itself to assist Yemen in training its security forces, political security as well as the anti-terrorism special forces," Mr Qirbi said.

"Also in the development of these areas which need a lot of projects, in education, in heath, roads, etcetera because we feel that the prosperity of these communities, their development will help in the government of Yemen's efforts to reduce extremism."

The foreign minister said a team of FBI agents has arrived in Yemen and that more are on the way.

But Mr Qirbi hastens to add that Yemen's counter-terrorism strategy will not rely strictly on military measures.

Working with tribes

For example he said the Yemeni government has located three suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen.

[The alleged al-Qaeda members] are innocent people, and have no relations to al-Qaeda. They were mujahideen in Afghanistan and returned to Yemen

Tribal leader Sherif Abedrabo
But rather than storm the villages and risk repeating the December debacle Mr Qirbi says Yemeni authorities are working with the tribesmen to take custody of the suspects.

"We are trying to get them arrested through a process of co-operation between the government and the tribesmen because we feel that using force may actually make them disappear and move into other areas," the foreign minister said.

"I think they are encircled in the areas they are in, and the government is sure they will be arrested in the near future."

But while Mr Qirbi says the tribesmen are not supporters of al-Qaeda, they do have a tradition of giving protection to anyone who asks for it.

'Not al-Qaeda members'

Furthermore, Yemeni tribesmen are wary of central authority and their co-operation with the government's crackdown is shaky at best.

In fact, one tribal leader Sherif Abedrabo defends the people alleged to be members of al-Qaeda.

"They are innocent people, and have no relations to al-Qaeda," he said.

"They were mujahideen in Afghanistan and returned to Yemen in 1994. And that was it. They are just like any Arab who went to Afghanistan during the communist period."

Such attitudes, along with the tribal leaders' guns and indifference to government authority limit Yemen's ability to control the tribes.

And if the government's crackdown on Islamic militants is too severe it could cause internal conflict and the breakdown of any order - the very environment that breeds extremism.

The government here is walking a tightrope. It is trying to balance demands by the US to tackle extremism, and simultaneously not upset the country's powerful tribes, whose traditions and influence are stabilising forces in this potentially explosive nation.

See also:

28 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Yemen
22 Jan 02 | Middle East
Yemen's weapon culture
21 Jan 02 | Middle East
'New leads' in Yemen bombing probe
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