SAN'A, Yemen – The U.S. and Britain closed their embassies in Yemen on Sunday in the face of al-Qaida threats, after both countries announced an increase in aid to the government to fight the terror group linked to the failed attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas.
The confrontation with al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen has gained new urgency since the 23-year-old Nigerian accused in the attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, told American investigators he received training and instructions from the group's operatives in Yemen. President Barack Obama said Saturday that the al-Qaida offshoot was behind the attempt.
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White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said the American Embassy, which was attacked twice in 2008, was shut Sunday because of "indications al-Qaida is planning to carry out an attack against a target inside of San'a, possibly our embassy."
"We're not going to take any chances" with the lives of embassy personnel, Brennan said. A statement on the embassy's Web site announcing the closure did not say how long it would remain closed.
In London, Britain's Foreign Office said its embassy was closed for security reasons. It said officials would decide later whether to reopen it on Monday.
The closure comes as Washington is dramatically stepping up aid to Yemen to fight al-Qaida, which has built up strongholds in remote parts of the impoverished, mountainous nation where government control outside the capital is weak.
Over the weekend, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced that Washington this year will more than double the $67 million in counterterrorism aid that it provided Yemen in 2009. On Saturday, Petraeus met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to discuss coordination in the fight against al-Qaida.
Britain announced Sunday that Washington and London will fund a counterterrorism police unit in Yemen. Britain will also host a high-level international conference Jan. 28 to come up with an international strategy to counter radicalization in Yemen.
The U.S. also provided intelligence and other help to back two Yemeni air and ground assaults on al-Qaida hide-outs last month, reported to have killed more than 60 people. Yemeni authorities said more than 30 suspected militants were among the dead.
The U.S. has increasingly provided intelligence, surveillance and training to Yemeni forces during the past year, and has provided some firepower, a senior U.S. defense official has said. Some of that assistance may be through the expanded use of unmanned drones, and the U.S. is providing funding to Yemen for helicopters and other equipment. Officials, however, say there are no U.S. ground forces or fighter aircraft in Yemen.
On Thursday, the embassy sent a notice to Americans in Yemen urging them to be vigilant about security.
Yemeni security officials said over the weekend that the country had deployed several hundred extra troops to Marib and Jouf, two mountainous eastern provinces that are al-Qaida's main strongholds in the country and where Abdulmutallab may have visited. U.S. and Yemeni investigators have been trying to track Abdulmutallab's steps in Yemen, which he visited from August until Dec. 7. He was there ostensibly to study Arabic in San'a, but he disappeared for much of that time.
Yemeni media also reported that the coast guard was increasing patrols to stop any incoming militants after an al-Qaida-linked insurgent group in Somalia, al-Shabab, claimed last week that it would send its fighters to help the terror group's offshoot there.
Al-Qaida fighters have dramatically increased their presence in Yemen over the past year, taking advantage of the San'a government's weak control over much of the country. Tribes hold sway over large areas, and many of them are discontented with the central government and have given refuge to al-Qaida fighters, both Yemenis and other Arabs coming from Saudi Arabia or war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, was the scene of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, and in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Yemeni government worked with Washington to crack down on al-Qaida figures on its soil.
But the terror group has rallied, announcing in January 2009 the creation of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, grouping fighters from Yemen and neighboring Saudi Arabia. The leader of the group, Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, is a Yemeni who was once close to bin Laden, and two Saudis who were released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2007 and 2006 have taken up senior roles — Said al-Shihri, the group's deputy leader, and Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, seen as its theological adviser.
The Yemeni government, meanwhile, has been tied down battling two separate internal rebellions in the north and south. The various conflicts and the country's poverty and lack of resources have raised fears that instability could deepen.
Located at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen straddles a strategic maritime crossroads at the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the access point to the Suez Canal. Across the Gulf is Somalia, an even more tumultuous nation where the U.S. has said al-Qaida militants have been increasing their activity. Yemen also borders Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer.
There have been a spate of assaults on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
In an attack in September 2008, gunmen and two vehicles packed with explosives attacked the U.S. Embassy, killing 19 people, including an 18-year-old American woman and six militants. None of those killed or wounded were U.S. diplomats or embassy employees. Al-Qaida in Yemen claimed responsibility.
In March 2008, three mortars missed the U.S. Embassy and crashed into a high school for girls nearby, killing a security guard. In March 2003, two people were shot dead and dozens more were wounded as police clashed with demonstrators trying to storm the embassy.
Last January, gunmen in a car exchanged fire with police at a checkpoint near the embassy, hours after the embassy received threats of a possible attack by al-Qaida. Nobody was injured. In April, embassy personnel were put on a one-week lockdown, barred from leaving their homes or the embassy after al-Qaida suicide bombings that targeted South Korean visitors.
As recently as July, security was upgraded in San'a after intelligence reports warned of attacks planned against the U.S. Embassy.
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