SAN’A, Yemen (AP) – Yemen’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country opposes any direct intervention by U.S. or other foreign troops in the fight against al-Qaida.
Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told The Associated Press in an interview that “there is a lot of sensitivity about foreign troops coming to Yemeni territory.”
His comments came as Yemeni security forces launched a manhunt for the suspected leader of an al-Qaida cell believed to be behind a threatened attack that forced the closure this week of the U.S. and British embassies in San’a.
Security forces swept into several areas where the militant, Mohammed Ahmed al-Hanaq, was believed to be hiding in the mountainous region of Arhab, northeast of the capital, but have not located him, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Officials negotiating with tribal sheiks in Arhab are demanding that they surrender al-Hanaq and another al-Qaida suspect related to him, Nazeeh al-Hanaq, tribal leaders told AP, also speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
The U.S. says the Arhab cell was behind a plot to send al-Qaida fighters into San’a to carry out attacks, possibly against foreign embassies. The U.S. and British embassies closed down Sunday and Monday, and other Western missions limited or stopped their access to the public.
Security forces on Monday tried to capture al-Hanaq as he was moving through the Arhab region, prompting heavy clashes. Mohammed Ahmed and Nazeeh al-Hanaq both escaped, but two fighters with them were killed. The U.S. and British embassies reopened the following day, saying the clashes had largely resolved the threat.
On Tuesday, security forces arrested three other fighters who were wounded in the clashes as they were being treated in a hospital in a nearby town. Four others who took them to the hospital were also arrested, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.
The United States has ramped up its counterterrorism aid to Yemen in an intensified campaign to uproot al-Qaida’s offshoot here, which Washington warns has become a “global” threat. U.S. military personnel have already been on the ground training Yemeni security forces in the fight, and intelligence cooperation has increased.
Al-Qirbi said Yemen’s government would welcome more military trainers, “but not in any other capacity.”
“There is a lot of debate among them about how far they should get involved in Yemen,” al-Qirbi said, referring to the United States and its allies. “I’m sure that their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be very useful to learn from—that direct intervention complicates things.”
So far the U.S. has indicated it is not aiming to deploy ground forces in Yemen. President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said earlier in the week, “We’re not talking about that at this point at all.”
But al-Qirbi’s comments underscored how Washington must tread carefully as it strengthens its partnership with Yemen’s fragile government, which has little control over large parts of the country outside the capital and rules over a population where Islamic conservatism and mistrust of the Unites States is widespread.
There have been media reports that U.S. cruise missiles or warplanes were involved in strikes carried out last month against several al-Qaida strongholds, which Yemen says killed at least 30 militants. U.S. officials have not confirmed the reports. Yemen says its air force—which has Russian-made MiG warplanes—carried out the strikes with U.S. intelligence help.
Earlier this week, al-Qirbi insisted there is no agreement between Yemen and the United States allowing the American military to use cruise missiles, drones or warplanes in strikes on Yemeni territory, “and there is no proposal for such an agreement.”
The issue is highly sensitive for the Yemenis. In 2002, the government was infuriated when U.S. officials made public that U.S. cruise missiles were used in a strike that killed a top al-Qaida figure, Abu Ali al-Harithi—believed to be the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen. San’a complained that the exposure embarrassed it before the Yemeni public.
Complicating the situation, a number of women, children and other civilians were killed in one of the recent strikes, a Dec. 17 attack on a suspected al-Qaida training camp in southeastern Yemen. The deaths raised an outcry among Yemenis—and San’a is deeply wary of the possibility strikes could turn the population against it and the fight on al-Qaida.
Yemen has intensified its campaign against the hundreds of al-Qaida militants that have built up strongholds in lawless regions of the impoverished mountainous nation.
Al-Qirbi told AP that Yemen seeks Western help in “establishing more counterterrorism units, training them, equipping them and providing them with logistical support.” He ruled out the possibility of any joint command for those forces between Yemen and the United States.
He also called for greater economic aid to Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, to prevent “radicalization, extremism and terrorism.”
Obama has vowed a close partnership with San’a against al-Qaida, but there are also deep concerns over the stability of the Yemeni government, which is burdened with crises. Heavily armed tribes dominate large parts of the country, where the military and civilian administration have almost no authority.
Many of the tribes resent the central government, saying it neglects development in their areas, and some tribes have given refuge to al-Qaida fighters.
Moreover, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government is fighting a war with Shiite rebels in the north and contending with separatist unrest in the south, which was once independent. Corruption is rampant, and Saleh has to balance among the unruly factions that keep him in power—including influential Islamic fundamentalists who many worry will resist close cooperation with Washington against al-Qaida.