By Mohamed Sudam and Ulf Laessing
SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen declared open war on al Qaeda Thursday and warned its citizens against aiding the global militant group, but Islamist clerics threatened jihad if foreign military forces intervene.
Yemen has come under pressure to act against al Qaeda since attacks on its two main allies, Saudi Arabia and the United States, by militants coming from Yemeni soil.
But facing an array of other threats, weak state control of much of the country, a burgeoning population and a weak economy, analysts say Yemen will need more than military might to stop the country from being a fertile breeding ground for militancy.
“Security forces are launching a wide campaign against al Qaeda elements, and we have an open war with them,” a security official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Defense Ministry’s online newspaper “September 26,” quoting an unnamed security source, said the war was open against al Qaeda militants “whenever or wherever we find those elements.”
“The source warned citizens against hiding any elements from the al Qaeda organization, calling for cooperation with the security apparatus and for them to inform on any elements,” September 26 said.
Yemeni security forces scoured rugged mountains for a second day using helicopters to hunt for some 25 suspected al Qaeda militants who fled raids Tuesday in the southeastern province of Shabwa, security sources said. Violence also flared in a separate conflict with Shi’ites in the north.
Yemen had already intensified operations against al Qaeda since a Yemen-based wing of the group said it was behind a failed December 25 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner. But the U.S. attack has given the campaign new impetus.
But on top of the fight against al Qaeda in multiple provinces, Yemen is also battling a northern Shi’ite insurgency and trying to contain separatist sentiment in the south.
The United States and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen’s instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the world’s top oil exporter, and beyond.
CLERICS THREATEN JIHAD
Strategically placed on the Arabian Peninsula’s southern rim, Yemen is the poorest of all Arab countries and produces only a small amount of oil from shrinking reserves. It also faces a water crisis.
Yemen’s population of 23 million is expected to double in the next 20 years. Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said on Thursday the country needs about $2 billion a year in aid just to stay afloat and double that to turn its economy around.
Qirbi has said Yemen also needs security assistance from the United States and other allies to help it combat al Qaeda, but has rejected direct U.S. intervention.
Yemeni officials acknowledge the need for U.S. help. Counter-terrorism and defense officials say Washington has been quietly supplying military equipment, intelligence and training to Yemen to use against al Qaeda.
But a group of 150 Islamist Yemeni clerics called for jihad if there were any foreign military intervention.
“In the event of any foreign party insisting on hostilities against, an assault on, or military or security intervention in Yemen, then Islam requires all its followers to pursue jihad,” the statement said, signed by 150 clerics in the capital.
Fighting has also intensified in north Yemen in recent weeks, with both Yemeni and Saudi forces pounding positions of Shi’ite insurgents who have fought central government since 2004, complaining of social, economic and religious marginalization.
Pro-government Shoulan tribesmen killed 10 Shi’ite rebels after they tried to take up positions in homes in a northern town, the Interior Ministry said Thursday, without saying when the deaths occurred.
“Tribal groups from the Shoulan rained the infiltrating gangs of destruction with a barrage of rifle fire, killing 10,” the Interior Ministry said on its website. Wednesday, 15 rebels were reported on to have been killed in separate clashes with pro-government tribesmen and in Yemeni security operations.
A Saudi defense official said Tuesday that Saudi forces had killed hundreds of infiltrating Yemeni Shi’ite rebels on the Yemen-Saudi border.