By Mohamed Sudam
SANAA (Reuters) – Yemeni forces surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader in a house near the capital after earlier arresting three militants wounded in a raid, security sources said, as the country cracked down on militancy.
Yemeni authorities this week launched an operation to root out al Qaeda militants who they said were behind imminent militant threats that forced Western embassies to close.
The raid allayed U.S. security concerns, allowing its already heavily fortified mission to reopen.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said fighting in Yemen was a threat to regional and global stability.
Security forces had surrounded the house where the suspected al Qaeda commander was believed to be hiding in Arhab, 60 km (40 miles) northeast of Sanaa, defense sources said. They said the man was the target of a raid earlier this week.
Security forces have secured and surrounded the area where the house is located but no fighting was taking place, a Yemeni official told Reuters.
Three militants wounded in an attack on Monday had initially escaped, fleeing to another province where they sought shelter and medical care, a security source said. They were found in a hospital and arrested on Tuesday.
Arhab was one of the regions targeted by government forces with air and artillery strikes last month in operations that a security source said foiled a series of suicide bombings. Two suspected militants died in the December operation in Arhab.
Four other people who had been sheltering the wounded militants were also detained on Tuesday, the source said. He added that doctors in the hospital may not have realized the men they were treating were suspected al Qaeda members.
Security sources described all the al Qaeda militants arrested in recent days as rank-and-file members of the group.
FRENCH EMBASSY REOPENS
France said on Wednesday it reopened its embassy to the public after following the United States and Britain on Sunday in closing the mission to the public due to security concerns.
The British embassy said on its website that it has reopened but that public services remained closed. The U.S. embassy reopened on Tuesday.
Placed strategically on the Arabian Peninsula’s southern rim, Yemen is trying to fight a threat from resurgent al Qaeda fighters while a Shi’ite revolt rages in the north and separatist sentiment simmers in the south.
Yemen has sent troop reinforcements to take part in a campaign against al Qaeda in three provinces over the past four days, and one security source said forces had set up extra checkpoints on main roads.
The West and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen’s instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and beyond. Yemen is a small oil producer.
The fresh arrests bring to eight the number of al Qaeda suspects held in the current manhunt, security sources said. Five others were arrested earlier this week from homes where they were hiding.
Yemen, with shrinking oil reserves, a water crisis and fast-growing population, had already stepped up security on its coast to block militants from reaching its shores from Somalia.
Yemeni officials acknowledge the need for U.S. help with counter-terrorism, but say the government also lacks resources to tackle the poverty that widens al Qaeda’s recruiting pool.
Defense and counterterrorism officials say Washington has been quietly supplying military equipment, intelligence and training to Yemen to root out suspected al Qaeda hide-outs.
Civil war and lawlessness have turned Yemen into an alternative base for al Qaeda, which U.S. officials say has been largely pushed out of Afghanistan and is under military pressure from the Pakistani army in bordering tribal areas.