Anti-terrorism training intensifies in Yemen

Troops have been training for years under US and British experts and are part of the central security forces of the country.

SANA'A // In an arid highland area of Sarif, 30km to the east of the capital, dozens of troops conducted anti-terrorism exercises yesterday. The masked troopers, who are trained by US and British military experts, shot at dummy targets and pounded a wooden house with live fire. "These troops who are doing exercise today were enrolled five years ago. We are well prepared to go on any task either here in Sana'a or elsewhere," said the masked chief of the anti-terrorism unit while giving instruction.

Another Yemeni trainer, who also refused to disclose his name, said training has intensified since recent threats by al Qa'eda militants in Yemen. "We are always doing this training exercise, but it has been intensified these days to counter al Qa'eda and terrorism," he said. The anti-terrorism unit was set up in 2002 with support from the United States and other western countries. The unit is part of the central security forces, which are associated with the interior ministry.

Security officials refused to say how many people belong to the unit, but the forces are estimated at 40,000, carrying out policing tasks throughout the country. Its chief of staff is Brigadier Yahia Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, the nephew of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemeni officials say their country needs more training and equipment for anti-terrorism troops to reach remote areas as well as for the coastguards, who seek to secure the country's long coastline overlooking the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Barack Obama, the US president, said on Saturday that al Qa'eda's branch in Yemen was behind the attempt to blow up a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day. Mr Obama and the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, subsequently announced plans to put more money into a counterterrorism police unit that would train Yemeni police. David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, also said Washington would increase its anti-terrorism aid to US$140 million (Dh514m).

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian, is charged with trying to detonate explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew to Detroit from Amsterdam. He is reported to have told US investigators he received training and instructions from al Qa'eda operatives in Yemen. In response to threats by al Qa'eda, which themselves were responses to US military aid to Yemen, the United States and United Kingdom closed their embassies.

After two days of fighting between al Qa'eda suspects and police that killed two suspected militants, the ministry of interior said yesterday three militants who had fled an attack on Monday were arrested in a hospital where they had sought treatment for their wounds. "Security forces arrested the wounded three who are some of the escorts and relatives of terrorist Ahmed Mohammed al Haniq in a hospital in Raidah, Amran province [70 km to the north of Sana'a]. They were wounded while being confronted by anti-terrorism troops who were hunting down al Haniq, who is the leader of al Qa'eda in Arhab," the ministry said.

Yemen's government said Monday its forces killed two al Qa'eda militants, but Mr al Haniq, the group's suspected local leader, escaped. Yemen said Tuesday that thousands of soldiers, including antiterrorism troops, had been dispatched to the provinces of Mareb, Shabwa and Abyan, where al Qa'eda militants are believed to be hiding. Tuesday, after the Arhab operation, the US reopened its embassy; the British and French followed suit yesterday.

"I think the Americans ? closed down the embassies just to pressure the Yemeni government to take an action. They wanted to send a message to the government here that talks on the fight against terror are not enough, but should be translated into action. Then they saw the Arhab offensive," said a foreign diplomat requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. Yemen's interior ministry said Tuesday it had taken additional security measures to ensure the safety of embassies and foreigners in the capital.

In other developments, four suspected al Qa'eda militants - from Sana'a, Abyan and Mareb - have surrendered to police since Monday, under pressure from tribal leaders who have begun cooperating with the central government, according to a tribal sheikh who requested anonymity.