Yemen's leader warns of al-Qaeda expansion

May 09, 2013, 5:52 PM EDT
REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The president of Yemen on Thursday warned that the al-Qaida branch in the country was expanding and using assassinations and abductions of foreigners as a way to challenge the central authority.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued his warning during a closed session of the National Dialogue, which brings political, religious and other leaders together to decide on the country's political system before writing a constitution.

The official SABA news agency said Hadi held an "exceptional" meeting, but offered few details on the president's remarks about security in the county. However, three people at the session agreed to relay his comments to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the meeting.

They said Hadi told the participants that Yemen was at a crossroads, and pointed to a "very precarious" security situation in Yemen. One described Hadi's remarks as unusually frank.

The National Dialogue is part of a transfer of power deal that led to the ouster of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh after a yearlong mass uprising. During the turmoil, militant groups affiliated with al-Qaida took advantage of the military's preoccupation with the political unrest and took control of large areas of territory in the country's south.

According to the participants, Hadi said that although his government has been going after al-Qaida militants around the country, dealing them some setbacks, "the group is recuperating" and sleeper cells are waiting for the right time to carry out terrorist operations. One of the participants said Hadi told them that he was speaking "honestly" and that the security grip on the country was not as good as it should be. Hadi also told the gathering that al-Qaida was increasingly using modern technologies to facilitate communications and avoid being tracked.

Hadi said some political activities had been canceled in the south because of security concerns for those would be attending. He also said the government had told foreign missions to exercise caution while moving around Sanaa. Foreign missions already are required to get prior permission before traveling out of the capital.

Two Finns and one Austrian kidnapped in Yemen in December were released Thursday, according to Finland's Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja.

Hadi's comments about al-Qaida came on the same day that suspected al-Qaida militants killed an intelligence officer in southern Lahj province and a day after three Yemeni air force pilots were shot and killed near an air base in the south.

The participants said Hadi blamed some of the powerful tribes and members of the military and security, apparently in reference to loyalists to his predecessor, a common complaint since he came to office in February last year.

In comments published by SABA, Hadi urged social groups to "denounce" the presence of terrorist groups in their areas, and report them to authorities.

Hadi and his supporters have accused Saleh, the former president of Yemen, of obstructing the current U.S.-backed Yemeni government as it tries to reform and fight an active al-Qaida branch in the impoverished Arab nation.

Since he took office, Hadi has tried to remove former regime loyalists over concerns that Saleh was using them to further destabilize the nation. Last month, Hadi removed Saleh's son and nephews from powerful security posts, a move hailed by his supporters as the most dramatic yet to sideline figures from the previous regime.