Thursday, June 23, 2011

US says all in Yemen struggle worry about al-Qaida

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat pushing for a peaceful transfer of power in Yemen said Thursday that whichever side emerges from the four-month political crisis to lead the nation will cooperate with Washington in battling Yemen's al-Qaida branch.

The Obama administration fears Yemen's turmoil will give al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula more room to operate freely and plot attacks on the West from the country's remote and mountainous reaches. The U.S. says the Yemen-based militants are now the terrorist network's No. 1 threat and has carried out expanded strikes against them with armed drones and warplanes.

In talks with government officials and opposition figures seeking the president's ouster, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman said all expressed an understanding of Washington's concerns about Yemen's al-Qaida branch, which has an estimated 300 fighters and has carried out several nearly successful strikes on U.S. targets.

"Everyone gave us some assurances that they are concerned about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," Feltman said. "Any government is going to be a strong partner. They are committed to work with us in fighting terrorism."

The diplomat also delivered Washington's message that it wants to see a swift transfer of power as outlined in a proposal by Gulf mediators trying to end the political crisis.

Yemen's autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is clinging to power despite daily protests since February calling for his ouster and an attack on his palace this month that badly wounded him and forced him to fly to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

He has refused three times to sign the Gulf proposal.

"We continue to believe that an immediate peaceful and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people," Feltman said Thursday after his talks.

"We encourage all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement so the Yemeni people can soon realize the security, unity and prosperity that they have so courageously sought," he added.

Feltman met with Saleh's powerful son Ahmed, who commands Yemen's Republican Guard force and is helping preserve his father's rule in his absence.

The deal by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council calls for Saleh to step down within 30 days and hand power to his vice president. It also calls for a national unity government to run the country until elections are held. In return, Saleh would get immunity from any prosecution.

There were signs Thursday that pressure was building on Saleh to accept the deal.

Saleh aide Abdul-Karim al-Iryani visited him in his hospital in Riyadh, and a Yemeni diplomat in Saudi Arabia said they discussed the opposition demand to transfer power to his vice president and implement of the Gulf initiative. The half-hour meeting was at Saleh's request, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the contacts.

The official Yemen news agency reported that al-Iryani said Saleh's condition was improving.

Washington considered Saleh an essential partner in battling al-Qaida and had given his government millions of dollars in military aid, but has been pressing for him to step down to spare the country further bloodshed.

Despite Feltman's assessment that all sides in Yemen's power struggle are committed to fighting al-Qaida, the U.S. is also preparing for a worst-case scenario.

The United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target al-Qaida militants in Yemen in the event any future leadership would shut U.S. forces out.

There are several signs that the al-Qaida offshoot is already taking advantage of Yemen's turmoil to expand its reach. Hundreds of al-Qaida-linked militants have taken over two towns in southern Yemen.

And on Wednesday, nearly 60 suspected al-Qaida militants escaped from a Yemeni prison in the lawless south.

Yemen's unrest began in February with largely peaceful protests inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. A crackdown by government security forces has killed at least 167 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

The crisis descended into further violence when street battles broke out between forces loyal to President Saleh and fighters under the control of Yemen's most powerful tribal leader.

President Saleh meets al-Eryani in Riyadh

RIYADH, June 23 (Saba) - President Ali Abdullah Saleh met on Thursday his political adviser Abdul-Karim al-Eryani at the special royal suite of a hospital in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

During the meeting, al-Eryani reassured over the health of the President.

In a statement to Saba, al-Eryani said that the health of President Saleh is good and improving well.

President Saleh and a number of senior officials are in Saudi Arabia for treatment of injuries suffered in a criminal attack targeted 03 June a mosque at the presidential palace in Sana’a as the President and senior officials were performing the Friday noon prayer.

US urges 'immediate' power transfer in Yemen

By Hammoud Mounassar (AFP)

SANAA — A top US official called Thursday for an "immediate" power transfer in Yemen, as a Western diplomat said President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded by one of many bombs planted in a mosque.

Echoing demands by the Yemeni opposition, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman said: "We continue to believe that an immediate, peaceful, and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people."

"We urge all sides to engage in dialogue that peacefully moves Yemen forward," he told reporters after meeting Yemeni Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.

Feltman's statements come amid growing local and international pressure on Hadi to assume power after embattled Saleh was flown to Riyadh for treatment for wounds suffered when a bomb exploded as he prayed at his palace mosque on June 3.

A Western diplomat said on Thursday that the blast was caused by one of many bombs planted in the mosque, adding that others did not explode.

Saleh was wounded by a TNT explosive device, the diplomat said in Sanaa, asking not to be identified.

A Yemeni security official confirmed that some bombs did not go off.

"Five explosives planted inside the mosque and another planted outside did not explode," he told AFP.

Feltman said Washington "is providing support to the Yemenis in the investigation" which the diplomat said will take "months."

US experts on June 9 said the attack was an assassination bid, probably an "inside job" using an improvised explosive device.

STRATFOR, a US-based authority on strategic and tactical intelligence issues, said its assessment was based on an evaluation of photographs taken of the blast site.

Other top Yemeni officials, including Prime Minister Ali Mohammad Mujawar and consultative council chief Abdulaziz Abdulghani, were wounded in the blast that killed 11 people and injured another 124.

Saleh, 69, has made no public appearance since the attack, sparking speculation about his condition and casting doubts over the possibility of his return to Yemen.

But Hadi's grip on power is questioned as Saleh relatives continue to run main security systems. Key among them is Saleh's son, Ahmed, who leads the elite Republican Guard.

"The United States supports the initiative proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a credible path to confront the challenging political situation in Yemen," said Feltman.

"We encourage all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement so the Yemeni people can soon realise the security, unity, and prosperity that they have so courageously sought and so richly deserve," he added.

Despite strong Western pressure, Saleh has repeatedly refused to sign the GCC-brokered transition plan under which he would hand power to Hadi within 30 days in exchange for a promise of immunity from prosecution.

"The vice president is facing obstacles and difficulties. We believe that all Yemenis support him, except for (Saleh's) sons who are holding on to hereditary authority," parliamentary opposition spokesman Mohammed Qahtan told AFP.

Qahtan said the opposition has "heard" a meeting took place between Feltman and Ahmed, but "Ahmed has no constitutional authorities. Our revolution was necessary because Yemen would have become a monarchy."

"If (Saleh) returns as a common citizen then he is welcome but we reject his return as a president and so do the Yemeni people," Qahtan said.

Yemenis have protested since January calling for Saleh's ouster. His security forces have killed at least 200 people since.

Following Saleh's departure for Saudi Arabia, demonstrators continued to rally in an attempt to pressure Hadi to form an interim ruling council to crush any hopes the veteran leader might have to rule again.

In addition to Hadi, Feltman said he met Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi, "as well as representatives from the civil society, student members of the opposition, business leaders and other foreign diplomats."

He did not, however, confirm that he had met Ahmed Saleh.

"As Yemen's transition moves forward, the United States looks forward to continuing and developing its partnership with the government and people of Yemen," he said.

Yemen: President Saleh 'was injured by palace bomb'

June 23, 2011

A blast that injured Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this month was caused by a bomb planted in his palace, Western diplomats have said.

Officials had initially said mortars or rockets were fired at the compound in the capital Sanaa, amid ongoing protests against Mr Saleh's rule.

But the unnamed diplomats said large amounts of TNT had now been found, suggesting an assassination attempt.

Mr Saleh was taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment and has not yet returned.

He is believed to be suffering from shrapnel wounds, broken bones, smoke inhalation, internal bleeding and extensive burns.

Seven people were killed in the incident, while Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar and at least two other senior officials were also seriously injured.

Western diplomats have been helping the Yemeni authorities to investigate the attack and have confirmed that a large quantity of the high explosive TNT had been placed inside the mosque where President Saleh attended Friday prayers.

Saudi influence

Other bombs were found undetonated in the mosque, they said, which was confirmed to the AFP news agency by a Yemeni security official.

Mr Saleh has ruled Yemen since 1978. His departure followed weeks of unrest that brought the country to the brink of civil war and left more than 350 people dead.

There were celebrations in the streets of Sanaa when Mr Saleh was flown to Saudi Arabia on 6 June.

The government has insisted he is still the president and will return to Yemen.

But the Western diplomats said Mr Saleh was "seriously injured " and would not be going home soon.

BBC world affairs correspondent Richard Galpin says the West is hoping the Saudis will be able to persuade him the time has come to stand down, and hand power to his deputy.

Senior US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman met Yemeni officials on Wednesday to discuss the crisis and is due to fly to its influential neighbour Saudi Arabia for further talks.

He said on Thursday that it was "time for Yemeni political leaders to work together for an immediate and peaceful transition of power".

Mr Feltman said any decision on ousting Mr Saleh would be left to Yemenis, but that the US expected him "to take a decision in the best interests of the Yemeni people".

Yemen General Says Opposition Will be Ally against Terrorism

By LAURA KASINOF,23/06/2011

SANA, Yemen — As the Arab Spring has turned to summer, this impoverished nation has fallen into chaos, raising fears in Washington that it will become the next headquarters of Al Qaeda — particularly with the declining influence of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of America’s staunchest allies in the fight against terrorism.

But Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, long one of Yemen’s most powerful military commanders and now a prominent opposition figure, says that familiar scenario has it just about backward.

Once it comes to power, he says, the opposition will become a far more dependable counterterrorism ally for the United States than President Saleh ever was. Mr. Saleh, now laid up in a Saudi hospital, is the problem, the general says, not the answer.

“As long as this regime is in power, Al Qaeda will continue to exist in Yemen,” said General Ahmar, sitting in his office at the headquarters of the army’s First Armored Division, which he leads. “Now, counterterrorism cooperation is based on material cooperation only. It is for the exchange of funds. How much will you give me if I can kill a person for you?”

As soon as political power is no longer consolidated in the Saleh family, General Ahmar vowed: “We will deal with terrorism as a critical issue. It will fight the terrorists as a matter of life or death. Not for material gain.”

Commonly regarded as the second most powerful man in Yemen, General Ahmar announced his support for what he called Yemen’s “peaceful youth revolution” a few days after the massacre on March 18, when government-linked snipers killed 52 protesters.

It was a watershed moment for the uprising. Immediately after General Ahmar’s announcement, soldiers from the First Armored Division were deployed around the perimeter of Sana’s large antigovernment protest to protect the demonstrators. Protesters would kiss the soldiers’ foreheads as they entered the area, and many protesters suddenly got the feeling that the movement to oust the Saleh government could actually succeed.

Numerous other military commanders, ambassadors, ministers and other officials followed in General Ahmar’s wake the same week, declaring their support for the protesters and saying that the days of the Saleh government were nearing an end. It was also the starting point for negotiations among the opposition, the ruling party and Western governments, notably the United States, for Mr. Saleh’s exit.

His refrain that Mr. Saleh and his family have not been serious partners in Washington’s counterterrorism campaign is frequently heard these days from leaders in Yemen’s opposition movement. Though not a member, General Ahmar is very close to Al Islah, Yemen’s Islamist party and the most powerful force in the country’s official opposition.

There are those in the opposition and ruling party who are skeptical of General Ahmar’s intentions. Though an affable man, he was an integral part of the Saleh government and was responsible for some of its corrosive policies. He played a central role in commanding the mujahedeen who returned from war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to fight in the Yemeni military, especially in Yemen’s civil war in 1994.

For the past six years, he commanded Yemen’s war against Houthi rebels in the country’s north, during which human rights organizations have said his army committed a number of war crimes against civilians. Coupled with major corruption allegations, his critics say, he is far from the ideal national hero.

Radhia al-Mutawakil, a prominent Yemeni human rights activist, said she decided to take a lesser role in the protest movement because of him.

“We can’t prevent anyone from joining the revolution,” Ms. Mutawakil said. “The revolution is for anyone. But to accept him and to deal with him as a hero, that was a very big problem. He is a very important part of the regime. Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar are the same thing.”

But General Ahmar has been trying hard to put a gloss on his dubious past.

“He was weakened by the Saada war and realized that by joining the protesters he can cleanse some of the bad image,” said a high-ranking government official, an independent, who knows the general personally.

General Ahmar now says he believes in political change through peaceful means, and that his goal is to build a civil state, free of corruption. A division of the army under his command is currently engaged in the battle against militants in the provincial capital, Zinjibar, “to show America that we are serious in the fight against Al Qaeda,” said his spokesman, Abdulghani al-Shumeeri.

Even when the home base of the First Armored Division, sitting high on a hill in northwestern Sana, was attacked by government forces, killing 35 soldiers, General Ahmar did not retaliate.

“We acted patiently this way in order to maintain the peaceful path of the revolution,” he said. “God willing, the revolution will achieve victory, peacefully.”

Fighting broke out in late May in Sana between Mr. Saleh and his rival tribal leaders, the Ahmar family, who are not related to General Ahmar. The general’s First Armored Division mostly stayed out of that conflict. Now, large groups of ragged-looking men stand outside his army base every morning, waiting to enlist.

General Ahmar, who is from the same village as Mr. Saleh, started to distance himself from the president in 2001, when he believed that Mr. Saleh was positioning his son Ahmed Ali to take over after him, analysts say. On at least one occasion, spelled out in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Mr. Saleh tried to assassinate General Ahmar by giving the Saudi Air Force the coordinates of a base where the general was staying during the last round of fighting in the Saada war in 2010.

General Ahmar says he is now dedicated to completing Yemen’s revolution and has no designs on power for himself. At one point in negotiations with Mr. Saleh, both men apparently agreed to resign and leave the country. The deal fell through, with each side blaming the other. But General Ahmar says he is still prepared to go ahead.

“If they ask me to leave my place for the interest of Yemen, I am ready to do it at any moment,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to keep my position in power or no aspirations for power either. Our genuine aspiration is to lead the revolution into a safe harbor and to ensure its success.”

However, when asked whether Mr. Saleh would return from Saudi Arabia after his wounds had healed, the general would say only “we have no information on this.”

Source: The New York Times