London conference pledges support to help Yemen’s army fight terror

Prince Saud Alfaisal: Saudi Arabia respects Yemen’s sovereignty, trusts its ability to should responsibility

Yemen rejects calls to stop war before Houthis observe six conditions

London meeting on Afghanistan leaves door open for dialogue with Taleban as Afghan forces to be responsible for security this year

Saudi Arabia offers $150 million for Afghanistan development, says to mediate if Taleban stops backing terrorists

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who chaired the London conference on Yemen and Afghanistan, told reporters it had been “an important step forward”, while warning the “root causes” of militancy must be tackled.

But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fired a shot over Yemen’s bows by insisting that Sana’a and the world “can and must do more” to help the country’s people, the poorest in the Arab world, overcome violent Islamists.

The London talks brought together ministers and officials from 21 Western and Arab countries to discuss security plus the wider economic and political problems facing Yemen.

Britain called the meeting after a foiled Christmas Day attack on an American airliner by a Nigerian man thought to have been trained in Yemen.

A statement after the meeting flagged up the world community’s commitment to “supporting the government of Yemen in the fight against Al-Qaeda” and pledged not to interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs.

“The challenges in Yemen are growing and, if not addressed, risk threatening the stability of the country and broader region”, the statement said. “The government recognizes the urgent need to address these issues”.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi welcomed the support expressed by fellow attendees for Yemen’s unity and sovereignty. “What we have achieved today does indeed achieve the results [wanted] by Yemen”, he said.

Miliband said five items were agreed at the meeting, including starting talks on an IMF program for Yemen, more engagement with its security challenges and confirmation from Yemen that it will “pursue its reform agenda”.

He also announced a follow-up donors’ meeting in Riyadh on February 27 and 28.

Miliband said the meeting, to be hosted by the Gulf Cooperation Council, “will not just share analysis on the improved disbursement of aid to Yemen but also establish a joint dialogue with the government of Yemen on its reform priorities”.

US President Barack Obama has accused Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen -- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- of training, equipping and directing the suspect. Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the plot in an audio message broadcast this week and promised further strikes would follow.

Yemen has ruled out allowing the United States to set up military bases on its soil and stepped up its own campaign last month with a military crackdown against Al-Qaeda.

But the US military and intelligence agencies have been involved in planning and equipping secret operations with Yemeni troops in recent weeks, The Washington Post reported last Wednesday.

It added that the United States was also sharing sensitive intelligence with Yemeni forces.

The London talks lasted for only two hours on the eve of a major international conference on Afghanistan in London, prompting claims from some British MPs that they were a gimmick.

Yemen’s many problems -- including extremism, corruption, water shortages and a dwindling oil industry that provides three-quarters of government revenues -- should be viewed as a package, according to academics.

“Any solution for Yemen requires a regional response which includes... Yemen’s relationships with Somalia”, said Ginny Hill, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a leading foreign affairs research group.

Maritime traffic in the Gulf of Aden could tempt Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to carry out spectacular attacks on shipping or hijackings for ransom, experts and diplomats say.

A message posted on an Islamist website in January warned the United States that “we have attacked you on land and in the air... and soon we will attack on the sea”.

“Al-Qaeda troops, especially those in the Arabian Peninsula, have expertise in this area”, added the threat, which was translated by the American research group The Middle East Media Research Institute.

The message referred to an attack by an explosives-laden small boat against the USS Cole destroyer in Aden October 2000 that killed 17 sailors and began a wave of suicide attacks by Al-Qaeda against the United States.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to bring down an airliner as it approached the US city of Detroit on Christmas Day.

Officials and diplomats in Sana’a are worried, as the Yemeni coast guard’s surveillance and protection capabilities are very limited.

“We are in need of means to control the coast of the country, not just against Al-Qaeda, but also to combat drug smugglers”, said Yemen’s head of central security, General Yahya Saleh.

Much of the coast is unmonitored, said Yahya, who is the nephew of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“We have some boats, but they are too few. The operations of our coast guard are funded by foreigners, while further out in the sea, international warships patrol the area as part of the fight against piracy”.

A Western diplomat in Sana’a noted that “Al-Qaeda uses the Internet as an operational tool to urge their followers to conduct maritime attacks”, said the diplomat who requested anonymity.

“To counter a potential attack from Al-Qaeda, the Yemeni coast guard has had a good deal of training in coastal defense, but they lack deep-water boats which would permit them to extend their defensive reach”, he indicated.

Since Yemen inaugurated its natural gas export terminal at Balhaf in the South, Yemeni marines have been protecting vessels at anchor and in areas close to shore, but they do not have the means to escort these vessels away from the shore, said another diplomat.

These vessels, such as oil tankers and cargo ships, sail up and down the Gulf of Aden under the threat of being attacked by Somali pirates -- currently the main source of danger in the zone.

Yemen's northern Shiite rebels said on Tuesday they were open to a prisoner swap with neighbouring Saudi Arabia if Riyadh was committed to peace, but said the kingdom had carried out more air strikes against them.

Saudi Arabia declared victory over the rebels last week. Three months ago it was drawn into the conflict between the Yemeni government and the insurgents, who complain of social, religious and economic discrimination.

The rebels would have to return six missing Saudi soldiers if they wanted hostilities to end, Saudi Assistant Minister of Defence Prince Khaled bin Sultan said at the time. Prince Khaled told state media on Tuesday the body of one missing soldier had been found.

"The issue of the Saudi prisoners is not an obstacle if there is a will for peace. Perhaps the matter can be solved through a prisoner swap," the rebels said on their website.

Yemen, which is also pursuing a crackdown on al Qaeda and struggling to contain a southern secessionist movement, rejected on Sunday a cease-fire offer from the rebels, saying it did not include a promise to end hostilities against Saudi Arabia, with which it shares a 1,500-km (900-mile) border.

Saudi Arabia had said rebel snipers were still entering Saudi territory. The insurgents denied this and said the Saudi military was attacking them.

Saudi fighter jets carried out 24 strikes on 10 northern districts on Monday and fired more than 200 rockets and rounds of heavy artillery, the rebels said on their website.

Yemen will next week start the trial of 35 Shiite rebels on terrorism and sabotage charges, a Defence Ministry website said.

Growing instability in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, is a serious worry for Western powers and neighbouring countries. They fear the Yemen-based regional wing of al Qaeda, which claimed a failed December 25 bomb attack on a U.S.-bound plane, could strengthen its operations there and use it as a base for more international attacks.

The government also faces separatists in the south who complain of economic and social marginalisation, a charge Sana’a denies.

Diplomats say President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 31-year rule is tainted by corruption and doubts about its democratic credentials.

Last week, Yemen promised Western and Arab donors gathered at a London meeting to work on reforms and to start talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a programme to revamp the economy and fight poverty.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said the government's decision to reduce fuel subsidies that were weighing on the economy was part of such reforms.

Yemen's partners would support Sana’a but the government would have to make economic and political changes, Ivan Lewis, Britain's minister of state in the foreign office, said after meeting Qirbi and the president in Sana’a.

"In the long term, security and stability depend on getting the economy moving, giving people decent services and having a political dialogue where people of different political persuasion can at least agree on working together in the interest of the country," Lewis told a news conference.

He also said Britain was helping Yemen to upgrade airport security to eventually allow the lifting of a suspension of direct flights by state carrier Yemenia to Britain, suspended last month on security grounds after the failed December 25 attack.

Meanwhile, Defense Department officials are hailing the International Conference on Afghanistan in London as a major step toward integrating the governance and developmental goals they say must go hand in hand with security efforts being advanced through the troop surge.

Representatives of more than 60 nations and international institutions focused on the best way to work together toward a stable Afghanistan that’s able to sustain its own security, exercise sovereignty over all its territory, provide governance and economic prosperity, and ultimately, play a constructive role in the region.

Although the conference wasn’t scheduled to raise funds or solicit pledges of additional troops, a communiqué released at its conclusion offered assurances of international support to expand the Afghan national security forces. The participants committed to an October 2011 timeline for growing the Afghan National Army to 171,600 troops, and the Afghan National Police to 134,000 members.

The communiqué also endorsed transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans in some provinces by late this year or early 2011.

Another major focus of the session was Afghanistan’s efforts to reintegrate low- and mid-level insurgent fighters and commanders who agree to cut ties with extremists, support the Afghan government and rejoin Afghan society through vocational training and jobs.

Participants pledged $140 million for a new Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the effort that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and others have recognized is critical to resolving conflict in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the U.S. delegation at the conference, recognized the importance of getting former enemies to renounce their insurgent ties and take a positive role in Afghan society.

“You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies,” she said during an interview with CNN. “You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Clinton noted, is trying to send clear messages to those associated with the Taliban only as a way to make a living, or through intimidation, to “come off the battlefield and reintegrate into society.”

“If you are a mid-level leader of the Taliban, not ideologically committed to their view, then you, too, can rejoin society,” she said. “However, there are very clear conditions: You must renounce violence. You must lay down your arms. You must renounce al-Qaida. And you must be willing to live by the laws and the constitution of Afghanistan.”

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and his team who are working to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, recognize lessons learned through the “Sunni Awakening” in Iraq about turning insurgents’ allegiances to support the government, Clinton said.

“There is an opportunity to try to convince the insurgents to quit the fight and come back,” she said. “And that’s part of this peace effort.”

Just as in Iraq, U.S. military members on the ground will have access to funds to support these battlefield decisions, within established rules and regulations, Clinton said.

“What our commanders tell us is that it is extremely useful when someone shows up and says to a young lieutenant or captain, ‘I’d like to quit. I want to go home. I want to plant my fields,’… to be able to say, ‘OK, and here’s what you’ll get if you meet our conditions and you go forward as a member of society,’” she said. “So, we want to equip our military.”

Clinton said she has “the greatest confidence in General McChrystal and his team to know how to pull this off.”

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia will not get involved in peacemaking in Afghanistan unless the Taliban stops providing shelter and severs all ties with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is visiting Saudi Arabia hoping for an active Saudi role in his plan to persuade Taliban militants to switch sides.

Saudi Arabia has a unique relationship with Taliban since it was one of the few countries to recognize the regime before it was ousted in 2001 and has acted as an intermediary before.

The Saudi conditions for participating in the talks with Taliban, especially expelling former Saudi citizen bin Laden, are not new, but Riyadh is restating them amid a new international push to work with the Afghan militants.

Riyadh “holds to its position which rejects entering any negotiations with Taliban before the group announces very clearly it is severing its connections with extremists and expelling the head of al-Qaida Osama bin Laden from its territories,” a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Bin Laden is a member of a wealthy Saudi family but fell out with the government in the early 1990s over the presence of U.S. troops there. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1994.

The Saudi official was reiterating statements of the foreign minister last week at the Afghanistan conference in London.

Prince Saud al-Faisal said he appreciated Karzai’s call for a Saudi role in peacemaking, but stressed Taliban had to first declare it is no longer sheltering bin Laden.

Saud also said an official mediation request is needed.

In London, Karzai stressed he plans to reconcile with Taliban leaders as much as they are willing, but he made clear his offer of reconciliation did not extend to anyone in al-Qaida, saying there was no room in Afghanistan for terrorists.