Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Yemen told: 'Reform or al-Qaida wins'

Observed by: Mr. Alaa Isam

Yemen must undertake urgent political reform to counter the mounting threat posed by al-Qaida militants who are using the country as a base to launch terror attacks against Britain, according to William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary.

As Mr Hague arrived for talks with President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the third stage of his emergency five-nation tour of North Africa and the Middle East, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets in protest at Yemen's autocratic government.

Earlier in the week Mr Saleh, who has ruled the country for 32 years, announced his intention to stand down in 2013, and confirmed he would not allow his son to succeed him. But, amid concern that unrest could spread in a country regarded as a key Western ally in the war against Islamist-inspired terrorism, Mr Hague urged the president to undertake long-promised reforms.

"The problems of Yemen are a vital issue for us in foreign and security policy," Mr Hague said following a lunchtime discussion with Mr Saleh at the presidential palace. "Economic and political reform are crucial to the long-term stability of Yemen.

"Yemen is a long-standing ally in fighting international terrorism and it is here, in Yemen, that reform in the Arab world can begin."

British security officials thwarted a major terror attack at the end of last year when they discovered a bomb at East Midlands airport among the cargo of a plane en route from the Gulf to Chicago.

Intelligence experts concluded the bomb had been made by al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen, who regularly declare their determination to attack British targets in messages broadcast on the Internet. Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaida figure blamed for several recent terrorist attacks, maintains close links to al-Qaida from his Yemen base.

British intelligence officials remain concerned that Yemen is not doing enough to tackle the mounting threat posed by al-Qaida militants. It is estimated there is a hard-core of around 300 militants associated with al-Qaida in the region. Although Yemen's security forces have lost hundreds of soldiers fighting al-Qaida groups predominantly based in the south-east of the country, Western intelligence experts believe the government could still do more to counter the al-Qaida threat. "The Yemeni government is not taking as effective action as it could against the al-Qaida threat," said a senior intelligence official in Yemen.

"What they need to do is give them a good whacking."

Mr Hague had flown to Yemen from Jordan, where he had a private dinner with King Abdullah, who is also under pressure from anti-government protesters to undertake wide-ranging political reforms.

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