'Al-Qa'ida militants' killed as Yemen tension rises

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Security forces killed two suspected al-Qa'ida militants in clashes outside the Yemeni capital today, officials said.

The news came as the French and Czech embassies closed their doors to the public, joining their US and British counterparts, in response to threats of attack by the terror group's offshoot here.

The clashes took place in a region northeast of the capital where last month the government carried out intensified raids against an al-Qa'ida cell it said was plotting attacks against foreign interests, possibly including embassies. In that Dec. 17 raid, officials said four would-be suicide bombers were killed.

The US and British embassies closed on Sunday after what US officials said were signs of al-Qa'ida was planning an attack in San'a, possibly against the diplomatic missions.

An officer on duty at the US Embassy in San'a said Monday that the closure remained in force. A State Department spokesman, Fred Lash, said reopening would be assessed day to day, based on the perceived threat to US personnel. The Foreign Office in London said the British were also reviewing the situation.

More Western embassies took steps of their own in the face of the threats, though they stopped short of completely shutting down. The French and Czech embassies were closed to the public, their governments said, warning citizens to avoid travel to the country. Spain's embassy in San'a restricted access to the public, and the German Foreign Ministry said that at its embassy "the number of visitors was restricted due to increased security measures."

In Monday's clashes, security forces attacked a group of al-Qa'ida militants including Nazeeh al-Hanaq, a senior figure on Yemen's most wanted list, as they moved through the mountainous area of Arhab on Monday, security officials said.

Al-Hanaq escaped, but two fighters with him were killed in the battle, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The officials said Monday's raid was not connected to the threats that prompted the embassy closures.

Yemen has carried out a string of raids on al-Qa'ida hideouts in the past month, part of an intensified effort — backed by the United States — to stamp out the terror group's growing presence in this impoverished, fragmented nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

President Barack Obama says al-Qa'ida's offshoot in Yemen was behind the failed attempt to bomb a US airliner heading to Detroit on Christmas. The United States and Britain have dramatically ramped up counterterrorism aid to San'a, including helping train and fund special units to combat the group.

al-Qa'ida has several hundred members in Yemen and is actively planning attacks against US targets, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said Sunday.

Washington's aid aims to give the Yemeni government with "the wherewithal" to take down al-Qa'ida, Brennan said, but he underlined that the administration was not currently planning on sending US troops. "We're not talking about that at this point at all," he said.

The Obama administration says the suspect in the failed Christmas Day bomb plot against a Detroit-bound jetliner was trained and armed by the al-Qa'ida affiliate in Yemen. Brennan blamed a series of what he called lapses and human errors in US intelligence and security defenses for allowing a Nigerian man to board the plane with explosives. Passengers and crew subdued the suspect when he tried to set off the explosion as the aircraft approached Detroit; he succeeded only setting himself on fire.

The Transportation Security Administration announced Sunday that, starting Monday, passengers flying into the United States from Nigeria, Yemen and other "countries of interest" will be subject to enhanced screening techniques, such as body scans and pat-downs.

But in assisting Yemen against al-Qa'ida, the United States has to tread carefully. The Yemeni government is friendly to the West but the population is often mistrustful of Western motives and influence — and too direct an American intervention can embarrass the leadership.

In a sign of the sensitivities, Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, insisted the US-Yemeni coordination does not allow Washington to carry out strikes on targets in Yemen with cruise missiles. "There are no such agreements, and there are no proposals to do so," he cited, cited in the Yemeni press Monday.

There have been unconfirmed reports that US missiles carried out strikes on al-Qa'ida hideouts on Dec. 17 and on Dec. 24, which Yemeni officials say targeted a gathering of the group's leaders and killed around 30 militants.

Yemen has pledged to clamp down on militancy, but government control is weak outside the capital and the country has a history of freeing some alleged militants and tolerating others. The government is also besieged by other mounting crises: a war in the north with Shiite rebels, separatist unrest in the south, and increasing poverty among the population of 22 million.

al-Qa'ida fighters — including some arriving from warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan — have built up strongholds in remote provinces of the country, at times aided by tribes disgruntled with the San'a government. Yemen, the ancestral homeland of al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden, was the site of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 US sailors. A 2008 attack on the US Embassy killed one American.

Gen. David Petraeus, the US general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made a surprise visit to Yemen over the weekend, a day after announcing that Washington this year will more than double the $67 million in counterterrorism aid that it provided Yemen in 2009.

The US and Britain are funding a counterterrorism police unit in Yemen, and Britain plans to host an international conference Jan. 28 to come up with a strategy to counter radicalization in Yemen.