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Yemen hunts bomb suspect as oil pipeline attacked
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen launched an operation on Tuesday to arrest a Saudi bomb maker accused of being behind a foiled bomb plot involving U.S.-bound parcels and suspected al Qaeda fighters blew up an oil pipeline, apparently in response.
Yemen's army, under international pressure to find the bomb maker, deployed to the south of the country, where insurgents attacked a pipeline run by Korea National Oil Corp, shutting output from a 10,000 barrels-per-day field in Shabwa province.
"This is one of the things we should expect because al Qaeda wants to give the message to the Yemeni government that military escalation does not mean that al Qaeda will remain silent now -- that they will react and escalate," Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director at Brookings Doha Center, told Reuters.
The aim of the military operation in the provinces of Maarib and Shabwa, where oil and gas fields of international companies are located, was to capture suspected bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Yemeni security official said.
The mission is also to catch the U.S.-born radical Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who is wanted by Washington.
"They want to underline their sincerity in fighting al Qaeda. They're in the spotlight again and they want to show they're dealing with the issue," said Nicole Stracke at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
In a phone call, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh urged President Barack Obama to intercede with European countries to drop bans on passenger or cargo flights from Yemen, which they imposed after the security scare.
"The decisions by some European countries to stop flights from Yemen is a collective punishment for the Yemeni people," the Yemeni news agency Saba quote Saleh as saying.
Yemeni authorities also began the trial in absentia of Awlaki, who has been linked to the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound plane in December 2009 that was claimed by Yemen's al Qaeda wing and who is thought to be in southern Yemen.
"The timing of this (Awlaki) trial leaves no doubt that this is also in response to international pressure on the government," Sharqieh said.
The U.S. Treasury has blacklisted Awlaki as a "specially designated global terrorist." Earlier this year, the United States authorized the CIA to capture or kill him.
Another court jailed 16 al Qaeda militants for four years.
The two parcel bombs were intercepted last week on cargo planes in Britain and Dubai and are thought to be the work of al Qaeda's Yemen-based regional arm, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. officials say.
Last week's plot deepened Western security fears focused on Yemen after AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb that Saudi Arabia's security chief narrowly survived in August 2009 and a foiled Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound plane.
Obama has increased funding for Yemen this year, providing $150 million in military assistance alone.
Unmanned American drone aircraft gather information about militants and occasionally have fired missiles at them, although neither Washington nor Sanaa is keen to admit this.
Joint U.S.-Yemeni security operations in the past year have failed to kill or capture AQAP's top leadership.
The muscular approach risks provoking a fierce backlash among Yemenis already deeply hostile to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and to Washington's support for Israel.
Al Qaeda has in the past threatened to target Yemen's oil and gas infrastructure, but such attacks have been relatively rare. Disgruntled tribes have sporadically blown up pipelines to exert pressure on the government.
"It (the pipeline) is an easy target and doesn't need much planning. In all other easy targets especially in the southern parts of Yemen, we should expect to see some escalation at this time," Sharqieh said.
POSSIBLE "DRY RUN"
In a fresh development in the interception of the bombs, U.S. media said American intelligence officials tracked several shipments of household goods from Yemen to Chicago in September and considered the parcels might be a dry run for an attack.
Intelligence officials believe the tracking of the shipments may have been used to plan the route for the parcel bombs.
The "dry run" involved a carton of household goods including books, religious literature, and a computer disk, but no explosives, one report said.
The New York Times said the apparent test run may have allowed plotters to estimate when planes carrying the explosive toner cartridges would be over Chicago or another city. That would permit them to set timers on the bombs to trigger explosions where they would cause the greatest damage.
Governments have tightened aviation security after the devices sent in air cargo from Yemen were intercepted.
International airlines body IATA warned on Tuesday against rash moves to improve aviation security.
"We have seen many cases where (solutions) have unintended consequences," Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said at an aviation security conference in Frankfurt.
"Security cannot bring business to a standstill," John Pistole, head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, told the conference.
(Reporting by Mohamed Sudam, Mohammed Mukhashef, Chris Wilson, Maria Sheahan, Erika Solomon and Raissa Kasolowsky; writing by Peter Millership and Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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