Yemen wary of Islamic extremists

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ACROSS the Red Sea from Somalia, in the south-western corner of the Arabian peninsula, another state has been erupting in a less well documented spate of violence.

The latest explosions at the end of the year in two hotels in Aden left two people dead, including an Austrian tourist. Earlier last month, more than a dozen people were killed in violence associated with attacks on targets of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). The YSP are heirs to the Marxist party which ruled South Yemen until May 1990 when it achieved that rare thing in the Arab world, a successful union with another Arab state, North Yemen.

Who is to blame for the latest violence? In a country where political violence is endemic to the cultural traditions, and men carry arms as a birthright, many interest groups have reason to stir up trouble.

After the earlier attacks, President Ali Abdullah Saleh accused hostile forces of financing conspiracies against Yemen. 'Enemy forces pay a lot of money not to support Yemen's democratic march, but to plot against its unity and democratic experiment.'

After the hotel attacks, however, the authorities have been directing their attention to one area, those seeking political change under the banner of Islam, collectively known as Islamists. These have been critical of the country's failure to implement a more rigid observance of Islamic law. Yemeni police have said the Islamists targeted the hotels because they were serving alcohol. The Islamists have cut production at the Aden brewery, the only legal plant for the production of alcohol on the Arabian peninsula. And one of their leading preachers, Sheikh Abd el Majid Zandani, accused the government of 'practices and initiatives which undermine Islam' .

In the past days, the army has made hundreds of arrests, and surrounded the lair in the al- Maraqshah region of central Abyan province of the fugitive leader of the group known as Al- Jihad, Sheikh Tariq bin Abdullah Nasir al-Fadli. Like so many of the militants bedevilling security services throughout the Arab world, he is a veteran of the Afghan war, where he fought side by side with native mujahedin.

Thereafter, Tariq al-Fadli went to Saudi Arabia, and it is the Saudis, or private individuals within Saudi Arabia, who are widely believed to be behind the movement in Yemen.

The Saudis have traditionally looked down their noses at what they regard as their hill-billy Yemeni neighbours. At the same time, they have regarded Yemen, both north and south, as part of the Saudi sphere of interest.

Saudi concern at what happens in Yemen has been exacerbated by their disbelief that the unification could work, their ire at the stance Yemen took during the Gulf crisis (the Iraqi Vice- President, Taha Yassin Ramadan, has just left the Yemeni capital Sana, his visit a sign of continuing good relations with Iraq), and what they see as Yemen's defiant attitude towards Riyadh.

The Saudis are worried at this potentially rebellious presence in its backyard. Yemen is populous, it has a republican ideology and its history, both north and south, is rooted in revolution. For its part, Yemen has been forced to seek greater economic independence from Saudi Arabia after the Saudis kicked 850,000 Yemeni workers out of the country as punishment for its support for Iraq during the Gulf war.

Yet there are indigenous reasons for this political turbulence, too. Elections, due to have been held by 21 November, have been postponed to 27 April. Last year a number of senior ministers and government officials were the target of attacks. Many of them were directed at members of the Yemen Socialist Party.

The party now says it has shed its Marxist ideology to present a more moderate image as a part of government able to manage reform.