SANA'A // Yemen announced on Sunday it would close all its main waterways to prevent militants from the Horn of Africa infiltrating the country through its porous 1,400km coastline. The interior ministry said in a statement on its website it had given orders to the coastguard and security authorities in the coastal provinces to close the main waterways.
"This measure comes within the framework of Yemen's efforts to ban terrorist elements in the Horn of Africa from entering Yemen," the statement said. It said the measure was taken following an announcement this month by Somalia's Islamist al Shabaab militants that they would send fighters to Yemen to help al Qa'eda in its fight against the government. Saeed al Shehri, a deputy leader of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula - a merger of al Qa'eda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia - called on February 9 for a regional Muslim holy war and a blockade of the Red Sea to cut off US shipments to Israel, a further sign of the group's ambitions to mount new strikes outside its base.
Mr al Shehri, a former inmate of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay from Saudi Arabia, called on al Shabaab insurgents to help block the narrow strait of Bab al Mandab. "At such a time the Bab [al Mandab] will be closed and that will tighten the noose on the Jews [Israel], because through it America supports them by the Red Sea," said Mr al Shehri, whose group claimed responsibility for the failed bombing of a US plane on Christmas Day.
The area across the strait from Yemen is far from al Shabaab's territory, which extends from the southern Somali port of Kismayu to the central town of Baidoa and parts of the capital Mogadishu. Col Lotf al Baraty, the director of the Yemeni coastguard in Aden, said the measures taken by the government include the deployment of forces into coastline positions, though he did not specify how many were deployed.
"The coastguard authority has enhanced the capacity of this sector by deploying coastguards on singled out centres. It has also intensified maritime and coastline patroling," Mr al Baraty said. But Abdu Salem, a politician who follows Yemeni relations with the Horn of Africa, dismissed the ability of Yemen's coastguard - only seven years old with a fleet of about 25 boats - to effectively protect its coastline from infiltration.
That responsibility, he said, lay in the hands of international forces such as those from the US and India who are engaged in fighting piracy, and arms and drugs smuggling, which is linked to al Qa'eda. "The task of Yemen's coastguard will be limited to protecting the Yemeni land territories," Mr Salem said. "Protecting the waterways is now the job of the coalition forces." The interior ministry statement also said state security has stepped up monitoring of Somali refugees living in Yemen to prevent militants using asylum to get into Yemen and to root out those that already have.
Yemen, which has traditionally had close ties with Somalia, has given prima facie refugee status to all Somalis escaping the conflict and famine since the collapse of the state in 1991. According to the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees, Yemen hosts 171,000 registered refugees, mostly Somalis. Many more unregistered Somalis are thought to be living there, most of them hoping to move to richer Gulf countries. The Yemeni government, however, estimates that there are 700,000 refugees in Yemen.
Mr Salem said the most important thing for Yemen is to better manage its refugee population. "There has to be a solution to the Somalis' presence in Yemen and [the country needs] to attract the attention of the international community to support the Somali refugees as well as get aid for its coastguard force," Mr Salem said. Since al Shabaab offered to send fighters to support al Qa'eda in Yemen last month, dozens of Somalis have faced harassment from the police and detention. The government started last month a nationwide campaign to register refugees, taking their fingerprints and photos in order to track their movements.
"This announcement of al Shabaab has left an impact on the Somali refugees Yemen has been hosting generously," said Mohammed Hersi, a Somali community leader in Yemen. "Somalis used to move freely, but now not; some of them have been arrested in Sana'a, Mareb and Aden; we have no exact figure about their number. Some were later released." Mr Hersi said some Somalis who had come to Yemen from the relatively stable part of north Somalia had returned home because they were unable to get into Saudi Arabia, which has boosted control over its border with Yemen during its war with Shiite al Houthi rebels.