Net closes on Yemen parcel bomb suspects

Yemeni security forces have searched two central provinces in the hunt for the ringleaders of the failed plot to place parcel bombs on two US-bound cargo planes.

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SANA'A // Yemeni security forces swept through two central provinces yesterday in the hunt for the ringleaders of the foiled plot to place parcel bombs on two US-bound cargo planes.

As the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh came under pressure to capture the Saudi bombmakerIbrahim al Asiri and the US-born radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki, who is wanted by US authorities for his links to al Qa'eda, militants blew up an oil pipeline operated by a South Korean firm in southern Yemen.

Yemeni authorities yesterday put al Awlaki on trial in his absence. He has also been linked to the failed bombing of a US-bound plane in December 2009 that was claimed by Yemen's al Qa'eda wing, and he is thought to be in southern Yemen.

"Asiri is believed to be hiding and moving with senior al Qa'eda elements such as the Yemen al Qa'eda leader Nasser al Wahayshi. Security intelligence are still tracking them down to exactly identify their whereabouts," a Yemeni security official said.

"The campaign includes intensive intelligence and military work," he added. Security forces had been deployed to the two provinces of Maarib and Shabwa, and were working to seal off some areas. Maarib and Shabwa are known for their impenetrable deserts. Shabwa is in central Yemen and borders the Arabian Sea, while Maarib is in the west.

The two parcel bombs were intercepted last week on cargo planes in England and Dubai and are thought to be the work of al Qa'eda's Yemen-based arm, al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The bombs were hidden in printer toner cartridges and would have been powerful enough to destroy the planes carrying them, Britain said.

The plot was uncovered after a tip-off by intelligence officers in Saudi Arabia based on information obtained from an al Qa'eda defector. Barack Obama, the US president, placed a personal call to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the weekend to express his "strong appreciation for the critical role played by Saudi counterterrorism officials".

The US Treasury Department has blacklisted al Awlaki as a "specially designated global terrorist". This year the Obama administration authorised the CIA to capture or kill him.

In a special security court in Sana'a yesterday, al Awlaki was charged with belonging to a terrorist group and plotting to kill foreigners.

The charges were laid during the trial of Hisham Mohammed Asem, 19, who denies killing a French citizen last month at the Sana'a office of Austria's largest industrial company, the oil and chemicals group OMV AG. A British national was wounded in the attack.

Last week’s bomb plot deepened western security fears focused on Yemen after AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb that Saudi Arabia’s security chief narrowly survived in August 2009 and the foiled Christmas Day attack on a plane bound for Detroit.

The Obama administration has increased funding for Yemen this year, providing US$150 million (Dh551 million) in military assistance alone.

Unmanned American drone aircraft gather information about militants and have occasionally fired missiles at them, although neither Washington nor Sana’a is keen to admit this.

Joint US-Yemeni security operations in the past year have failed to kill or capture AQAP’s top leadership.

The muscular approach risks provoking a fierce backlash among Yemenis already deeply hostile to the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and to Washington’s support for Israel.

In a fresh development, US media said that American intelligence officials tracked several shipments of household goods from Yemen to Chicago in September and considered that the parcels might be a dry run for the attack.

Intelligence officials believe the tracking of the shipments may have been used to plan the route and timing for last week’s two parcel bombs.

* With additional reporting by Reuters