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INTERVIEW-Yemen could be "another Afghanistan" -EU official
* Yemen in danger of becoming haven for Islamist militants
* Yemen needs assistance from international community
* Pakistan's release of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed is "worrying"
By Christian Lowe
ALGIERS, June 17 (Reuters) - Yemen is in danger of following Afghanistan down the path to becoming a safe haven for Islamist militants, the European Union's anti-terrorism chief said in an interview on Wednesday.
Three foreign women were found dead in Yemen this week after they were kidnapped by an armed group, heightening long-standing fears the country could slip into chaos and provide a launchpad for militant attacks.
Gilles de Kerchove, the EU's Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, said he had recommended that Yemen be ranked alongside Pakistan and the northern Sahara as regions that harbour threats to European interests.
"I was in Yemen a month ago. It's a state that really needs to be assisted. It is confronted with many challenges and we have to avoid Yemen becoming another safe haven or another Afghanistan," de Kerchove told Reuters.
"It's a weak state, so indeed we have to mobilise the international community to avoid that happening," he said on the sidelines of a counter-terrorism conference in the Algerian capital organised by the CAERT research centre.
Security analysts say they believe some al Qaeda militants, seeking new bases of operations after being squeezed out of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, are heading for Yemen.
The Arab world's poorest state, Yemen is already struggling with al Qaeda militancy, along with with tribal rivalries and secessionist sentiment in the south, home to most of the country's oil facilities.
If instability there deepens, al Qaeda could use it as a launching-pad for new attacks on neighbouring Saudi Arabia and further afield. Lawlessness in Yemen could also be exploited by pirates targeting shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa.
De Kerchove said the EU was concerned by the release this month by a Pakistani court of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of a militant group accused of last year's attack on the Indian city of Mumbai.
"That is very worrying. That should not happen," the EU official said. India was incensed by the release and the United States has also voiced criticism.
Asked about the U.S. policy of using unmanned drones to target militants in Pakistan, de Kerchove said the tactic had killed several senior al Qaeda leaders.
But he said, "I would just note that in Pakistan it is not well received to say the least, and we have to respect the state's sovereignty."
Civilian casualties caused by the drones have angered many Pakistanis and have complicated cooperation between the United States and Pakistan on rooting out insurgents.
De Kerchove also said the EU was "really worried" by the murder earlier this month in Mali of a British man who had been held hostage by al Qaeda's North African wing.
He said the group posed a threat to the countries of North Africa and also had logistical support cells inside the EU that could start launching attacks on European targets.
"Will it turn into a more violent behaviour? That is the big question now," he said. (Editing by Louise Ireland)
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