SAN’A, Yemen (AP) — The U.S. and its allies helping Yemen fight al-Qaida should not pressure it to carry out reforms or resolve other internal conflicts, the foreign minister said Tuesday, as the military claimed to have killed 20 Shiite rebels in fighting an uprising in the country’s north.
American officials have expressed concerns that Yemen’s costly and bloody war against the Shiite rebels, known as the Hawthis — as well as its efforts to stamp out a secession movement in the south — could divert resources and attention away from the fight against al-Qaida’s offshoot here.
In the past, Washington has cut economic aid to Yemen because of concerns over rampant corruption in the country. The commander of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, said Monday he expects counterterrorism aid to double this year to around $150 million, compared to none in 2008.
Yemeni military forces killed 20 rebels in a door-to-door sweep of the main northern city Saada and arrested 20 more in an operation dubbed “Strike on the Head” early Tuesday, the ruling party Web site reported.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that 82 Saudi soldiers been killed and 21 are missing since the kingdom joined the fighting in November, battling the rebels along the Yemeni-Saudi border.
Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi assistant defense minister, says his forces were able to “cleanse” the border village of al-Jabiri, “pulverizing” the Yemeni rebels who occupied it.
Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told reporters that an upcoming international conference on Yemen’s fight against al-Qaida, to be held in London on Jan. 27, should address the government’s war with the Shiite rebels or try to push political or human rights reforms.
The conference, to be attended by the United States and European countries, should focus on promises of counterterrorism help as well as economic aid for Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, al-Qirbi said.
“If we divert from these into other political issues that are within the domain of the Yemeni government, we will compromise the objectives of this conference,” al-Qirbi told reporters in San’a.
“The issues of human rights and freedom of the press are all issues that come within the national agenda of reforms … It doesn’t need to come through the London Conference,” he added. “On the Hawthis, we will not accept any instructions from anyone because that is an internal Yemeni matter.”
Washington has beefed up training and funding for Yemen’s counterterrorism forces in a bid to uproot al-Qaida’s offshoot in the impoverished, unstable nation, which the Obama administration says has become a global threat after it allegedly plotted a Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet.
Yemen carried out its heaviest strikes in years against al-Qaida hideouts last month and says it is determined to wipe out the group.
But the government is also beleaguered with internal strife. It has little authority outside a region surrounding the capital, and unruly, heavily armed tribes control large areas. The past week has seen lethal clashes between security forces and protesters in the south, which was once independent and a growing movement is demanding secession once more.
The military is also tied down fighting the Hawthis. The Shiite rebels first rose up in the northern Saada region four years ago, but since August the conflict has escalated into a full-fledged war, with government airstrikes that residents say have killed large number of civilians.
Al-Qirbi also defended an offer by President Ali Abdullah Saleh this week to open dialogue with al-Qaida members if they lay down their arms and renounce violence.
Saleh’s comments raised concerns his regime could strike deals with al-Qaida members, as it has in the past, releasing some from prison on promises they won’t engage in terrorism. Some militants have since broken the promises and are believed to have returned to the group.
Al-Qirbi told reporters that the president’s offer does not mean “Yemen is abandoning its fight against terrorism.” But it acknowledges that “military action is not the only way to deal with al-Qaida.”
The dialogue offer gives young Yemenis who have joined al-Qaida “a chance to come back to their communities and normal life” provided they renounce violence, he said. It also helps militants’ families “play a part in getting their sons, especially those who have been brainwashed into al-Qaida,” to quit the group.
“The international community with its experience in fighting terrorism over more than 10 years … has failed in combatting terrorism. And therefore we need to rethink our approach in fighting terrorism,” he said.