Gates backs big boost in U.S. military aid to Yemen

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 22, 2010 5:59pm EST

A Yemeni soldier aims his weapon at rebel targets in the northwestern Yemeni province of Saada, where the army is fighting Shi'ite rebels, in this undated picture released by the Yemeni army on January 25, 2010. REUTERS/Yemen Army/Handout

A Yemeni soldier aims his weapon at rebel targets in the northwestern Yemeni province of Saada, where the army is fighting Shi'ite rebels, in this undated picture released by the Yemeni army on January 25, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Yemen Army/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates has approved more than doubling U.S. funding to train and equip Yemeni security forces to combat al Qaeda, U.S. defense officials said on Monday.

The $150 million approved by Gates for fiscal 2010, up from $67 million last year, underscores U.S. concerns about the growing threat of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The sum does not include covert U.S. assistance for Yemen, which has quietly increased in recent months.

The Yemen-based group claimed responsibility for a failed plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet as it prepared to land at Detroit on Christmas Day. U.S. intelligence officials say it is emerging as al Qaeda's most active and sophisticated cell outside the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

The $150 million in funding will be used to supply equipment to and training for Yemen's counterterrorism forces, said the officials, who asked not to be identified.

U.S. Special Operations forces spearhead the training.

U.S. military and intelligence agencies have shared satellite and surveillance imagery, as well as intercepted communications, with Yemeni security forces to help them attack al Qaeda targets, officials said.

Critics say the expanding U.S. role in Yemen risks fueling anti-American sentiment and boosting al Qaeda's standing.

Several of Yemen's internal security and intelligence services have been named as human rights abusers by international rights groups and the U.S. State Department.

CIA Director Leon Panetta and other U.S. officials have raised doubts about whether Washington can count on Yemen in the long-term to fight al Qaeda, citing internal unrest that threatens to destabilize the government and break up the country, along with growing anti-American sentiment.

(Reporting by Adam Entous, editing by David Storey)

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