Yemen attacks al-Qa'ida hideout as hunt spreads

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The Independent Online

Special forces in Yemen attacked suspected al-Qa'ida Islamic militants yesterday in a widening of the campaign against Osama bin Laden's network. The United States was believed to have provided names of suspects to Yemen.

Up to 12 people were killed and 22 injured in fighting between tribesmen and Yemeni forces trying to find five individuals in the al-Halsun region of Marib province, 100 miles east of the capital, San'a. Despite more than two hours of bombardment, using tanks, helicopters and artillery, the soldiers did not trace the men, although the search was continuing. A number of tribesmen suspected of hiding the wanted men were arrested.

The special forces unit was the first to graduate from an American-funded programme to train and equip Yemen's security forces.

Yemen has been identified by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, as a potential target, with Somalia and Sudan, as America continues to try to weed out al-Qa'ida operatives outside Afghanistan.

Sources in Yemen told Reuters that at least one of the men being sought was on a list of suspected al-Qa'ida members passed to the Yemeni President, Field Marshal Ali Abdullah Saleh, when he visited Washington last month.

The sources said the operation in Yemen was launched after Abida tribesmen refused to hand over the individuals despite two days of negotiations.

America has long identified Yemen – the birthplace of Mr bin Laden's father – as a country with al-Qa'ida cells. The network admitted responsibility for the bomb attack on the USS Cole while it was docked at the southern Yemeni port of Aden in October last year, in which 17 sailors died.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the operation yesterday. Exactly how the US was involvedwas unclear, but in October an American special forces commander met his Yemeni counterparts to discuss military co-operation. Rear-Admiral Albert Calland, commander of special operations at the US Central Command, held discussions with General Mohammed Ali al-Qassemi, the Yemeni Chief of Staff, which looked at "exchanges of expertise" between the countries. The American commander also visited the special forces headquarters and watched some military demonstrations.

Although Yemen has declared its backing for the international anti-terror campaign after the attacks of 11 September, yesterday's operation appears to have been linked to the Yemeni President's visit to Washington, when President George Bush told Field Marshal Saleh that their countries needed to increase co-operation on intelligence-sharing and law enforcement.

Yemen said earlier this month that it was hunting down two senior tribesmen who the Americans suspected of being al-Qa'ida agents. Edward Hull, the American ambassador in San'a, told a Yemeni government newspaper that Washington knew that al-Qa'ida had cells in Yemen.

Yemen's government recently stepped up pressure on tribes implicated in or suspected of kidnapping foreigners, who are used as bargaining chips to press for government aid and better living conditions. Most recently, a German businessman was kidnapped last month by tribesmen in Marib province, and released unharmed on 8 December.