SANAA (Reuters) - A Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a U.S.-bound plane on Christmas Day was recruited by al Qaeda in London and met a radical American Muslim cleric in Yemen, a senior Yemeni official said on Thursday.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was put in the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind the attack.
"The information provided to us is that Umar Farouk (Abdulmutallab) joined al Qaeda in London," Rshad al-Alimi, Yemen's deputy prime minister for security, told reporters.
"We believe that he was recruited by radical elements in London," Alimi said, without elaborating.
Abdulmutallab, son of a prominent Nigerian banker, is believed to have embraced his militant views during trips to Yemen to study Arabic and Islam. He also studied engineering at University College London between 2005 and 2008.
Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalization who teaches at London's King's College, said pro-al Qaeda militants were present in some British campuses but disentangling their activities from legitimate student debate was very difficult.
Alimi said that, during his time in Yemen, Abdulmutallab had met Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki -- a U.S.-born cleric linked to the gunman who ran amok at a U.S. army base in November.
A Yemeni security official said last month that Awlaki may have been killed in a strike on al Qaeda militants, but other reports say he escaped and is on the run.
Yemen, located on the Arabian Peninsula's strategically important southern tip, is trying to fight a threat from resurgent al Qaeda fighters as well as quash a Shi'ite revolt in the north and separatist sentiment in the south.
Authorities launched an operation this week to root out al Qaeda militants who they said were behind militant threats that forced Western embassies to close on Sunday.
The raid, which killed two militants, allayed U.S. concerns and allowed the heavily fortified U.S. embassy to reopen.
Alimi said a group of five Germans and one Briton kidnapped in June were believed to be still alive and that authorities were looking for an "appropriate" way to gain their release.
He accused northern Shi'ite rebels of cooperation with al Qaeda in the abductions. The rebels deny working with al Qaeda.
Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told CNN that fighting al Qaeda was "the priority and the responsibility of our security forces and the army."
Asked whether it would accept direct U.S. intervention, he said: "No, I don't think we will accept that. I think the U.S., as well, has learned from Afghanistan and Iraq and other places that direct intervention can be self-defeating."
The foiled Christmas Day bombing has turned a spotlight on the growing prominence of al Qaeda in Yemen and the expanding role of the U.S. military and spy agencies in fighting it.
Yemen has long been a base for al Qaeda. Islamic militants bombed the USS Cole warship in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Yemenis were one of the largest groups to train in al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The Yemeni government sent troops this week to join a drive against al Qaeda in three provinces.
Yemeni forces also surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday, and have captured eight rank-and-file militants in recent days, security sources said.
Security forces detained an al Qaeda suspect in the eastern province of Maarib, the Interior Ministry said on its website on Thursday.
The West and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will exploit Yemen's instability to spread its operations to its neighbor, the world's biggest oil exporter, and beyond.
"Our thought was that maybe we should spare al Qaeda in the last year because of the confrontation in the south and with the Houthis (rebels). But al Qaeda took advantage of that," Qirbi said, adding that the group had tried to make inroads among the northern rebels and southern separatists.
"Then they went even further, to arrange for some (suicide) attacks in Sanaa. And this is why it was important that our security forces should take action against them," he said.
Yemen, with shrinking oil reserves, a water crisis and a fast-growing population, has stepped up security on its coast to block militants from reaching its shores from Somalia. Qirbi said there were about 200 to 300 al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
"How many of them are going to entertain terrorist attacks is something that is obviously of concern to us. This is why we always stress the importance of cooperation with the United States and other countries in the region," he said.
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.
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Firouz Sedarat, additional reporting by William Maclean, editing by Peter Millership)