INTERVIEW-Poverty impedes Yemen's struggle with al Qaeda

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* Yemen needs economic, not just security aid -minister

* Al Qaeda militants linked to other rebels, Qirbi says

* Sanaa still working for return of Guantanamo inmates

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Yemen needs security assistance from the United States and other allies to help combat al Qaeda militants, but only economic rescue can ensure success in the long term, Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said on Wednesday.

The impoverished Arab country has drawn close international scrutiny since a Yemen-based al Qaeda wing said it was behind a a botched Dec. 25 attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner.

"Our security agencies are capable of tackling terrorist threats," Qirbi told Reuters in response to emailed questions, adding that anti-terrorism and coastguard units needed outside support in training, equipment and exchange of intelligence.

"However, a security or military solution is not sufficient. So the international community has to pay more attention to the economic and development needs of Yemen and this is the concrete approach for tackling terrorism," Qirbi said.

Islamist militancy, such as that espoused by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is only one of myriad economic and security challenges facing President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A Shi'ite revolt in the north and southern secessionism are other symptoms of central government weakness in a country where rampant corruption and declining oil income undermine any effort to tackle poverty, unemployment and failing water resources.

Qirbi said the number of al Qaeda militants in Yemen had been exaggerated and probably did not exceed 300.

Al Qaeda's stated support for northern rebels and southern separatists showed "a kind of coordination between these three parties despite their different ideologies", the minister said.

"What brings them together is their hostility to the government. Besides, the former jihadist Tariq al-Fadhli is a now a leader of the southern movement, and (is) harbouring some al Qaeda militants in their areas."

The northern rebels, known as Houthis after their leaders' clan, deny links to al Qaeda, as does the Southern Movement at the forefront of unrest in the once-independent south.


Saleh recruited Fadhli and other Yemenis who had fought in Afghanistan to help government forces crush an attempted southern breakaway in 1994. Fadhli, a tribal leader from the south, switched allegiance to the secessionists in 2008.

Such past deals with militants and U.S. perceptions of Yemeni laxity in tackling al Qaeda have long made Washington reluctant to repatriate Yemenis still detained at its Guantanamo prison.

Six were sent home in December, but the United States suspended any further repatriations of about 90 remaining Yemeni Guantanamo inmates after the Christmas Day airliner attack.

Qirbi said Yemen was committed to fighting terrorism and would pursue efforts to get its nationals back.

"We keep saying to the Americans that we are ready to receive our Yemeni detainees back from Guantanamo and those who are accused of any terrorist acts will be brought to justice."

He said Yemen had in earlier years combated al Qaeda with security measures and with dialogue that aimed to wean jailed militants off their violent ideology and rehabilitate them.

"Intellectual dialogue with them proved to be somewhat effective," Qirbi said, arguing that Yemen lacked the resources needed to maintain adequate rehabilitation programmes.

Yemen's wealthy neighbour Saudi Arabia has invested much effort and money into rehabilitating militants. Although some have later rejoined al Qaeda, the Saudi programme has enjoyed more success than the one Yemen pioneered, analysts say.

Qirbi said Yemen would attend an international conference in London on Jan. 28 that would focus on helping build Yemeni anti-terrorism capabilities and development assistance.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this month development aid was vital to counter the spread of militancy among young people who "see a future with no jobs, no hope and no way ever to catch up to the developed world".

But she acknowledged that the odds of success were long in countries like Yemen -- whose 23 million population, of whom 45 percent are children under 14, is set to double in 20 years.

"The real approach for combating terror in Yemen must look into the economic difficulties Yemen is facing," Qirbi said.

"We must work together to treat those difficulties through a long-term mechanism."

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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