NEW YORK // Government ministers from the Gulf have met with their western counterparts to discuss the threat posed by extremists to Yemen, where fighting between government forces and al Qa'eda militants in the south has driven thousands from their homes over the past week.
The UN refugee agency said at least 4,000 civilians have fled the fighting, adding to the 300,000 still uprooted by an insurgency in the turbulent north early this year. In New York on Friday, the Friends of Yemen group called for economic, social and political reforms to prop up the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation. Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Alan Duncan, Britain's minister of state for international development, warned that if Yemen collapsed into a failed state "massive dangers" would affect regional and global security.
"If you're looking at a fragmented and weak government with an al Qa'eda presence inside the country, this is a very potent cocktail for danger," Mr Duncan said after the donors' group met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in Manhattan. The group wants donors to better coordinate aid to Yemen, he said, noting that US$3 billion (Dh11bn) pledged at a 2006 conference has not yet been spent in Yemen "because the country has not been able to show the capacity to use the funds".
Delegates agreed to open a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) office in the capital, Sana'a, to encourage larger cash flows from Yemen's oil-rich neighbours and help "all donors to plan, coordinate and deliver assistance to Yemen more effectively", according to a statement from the meeting. Yemen has repeatedly called for greater economic and political assistance from its neighbours, but GCC member states have resisted calls to open their six-nation club to a new member.
Friends of Yemen, which comprises 22 countries, the UN, EU, GCC, Arab League, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, called for the creation of a development fund for Yemen and smarter use of foreign aid. A key aim will be supporting the recently adopted IMF programme to restructure Yemen's economy, the statement said. The group also agreed to boost training programmes that "increase the participation of skilled Yemeni workers in local and other labour markets".
Gulf and western governments are worried about the terrorism threat from Yemen, with estimates that 300 al Qa'eda members operate in the country. The Yemen-based al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula is believed to have been behind the failed Christmas Day attempt to take down a Detroit-bound jet. Yemen has struggled to break the increasingly fierce al Qa'eda offshoot and wrest control of lawless areas in the south from powerful tribes, some of which are sympathetic to al Qa'eda and other Islamist militants roaming the region.
On Friday, Yemeni troops backed by tanks and heavy artillery managed to retake the town of Hawta, in Shabwa province, driving into the mountains the al Qa'eda fighters who had seized the town days before, according to Brig Gen Ahmed al Maqdashi. Anwar al Alawki, a US-born radical cleric, is believed to be in hiding in the area. The UN refugee agency said on Friday that most of the civilians displaced by the clashes were sheltering in the world body's reception centre in Mayfa'a, which typically handles refugees from the Horn of Africa.
"We are concerned about the security and safety of the population affected by the current conflict around Mayfa'a district and hope that all measures have been taken to prevent casualties among civilians," Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said. "Our estimate is that the ongoing clashes - which flared up on Sunday - have so far forced some 4,000 Yemeni civilians to leave their homes," he added.
Yesterday morning, 10 Yemeni intelligence agents were wounded in Sana'a, two of them seriously, when their bus was ambushed by two gunmen, most likely al Qa'eda militants, an official from the security services said. Beside the al Qa'eda threat, Yemen faces crippling water shortages and declining oil reserves as well as other major security threats - a recurring rebellion in the mountainous north and a separate secessionist movement in the south.
The UN counts 168,000 Somali refugees in Yemen, as well as 304,000 Yemeni civilians who continue to be displaced by the seven-month conflict between government forces and Houthis rebels which ended with a shaky truce in February. The session in New York was the second ministerial-level meeting of the Friends group, following January's meeting in London. A third is due to be held in Riyadh probably next February, Mr Duncan said.
Letta Tayler, a counterterrorism analyst for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, warned that the envoys were focused too heavily on economic and aid pledges and were forgetting to improve civil rights for ordinary Yemenis. "Despite all the welcome efforts on fostering economic growth, justice and rule of law in Yemen, human rights is the dog that doesn't bark at this summit," she said. "To be effective, it is critical that the Friends do not ignore Yemen's illegal detentions, crackdowns on journalists and other serious abuses in their understandable eagerness to confront al Qa'eda.
"If key players don't condition military and economic assistance on human-rights improvements, they risk alienating Yemenis and playing right into the militants' narrative that the US and its allies care only for their own geopolitical interests and nothing for the Muslim people."
with additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse