U.S. to expand Yemen's air forces to counter al Qaeda

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States plans to provide Yemen with helicopters, transport equipment and training to expand its air and ground offensive against al Qaeda, a Pentagon document showed on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week authorized $150 million in security assistance for Yemen in fiscal 2010, but Pentagon officials offered few details about the highly sensitive program.

The new funding will be used to repair and service 10 Mi-17 helicopters, provide four Huey IIs and train Yemeni crews to operate and maintain them, according to a Pentagon document prepared for Congress.

The funding will enable the Yemeni Air Force to transport small units to participate in day or night operations in high altitudes, according to the document, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

The $150 million package, up from $67 million last year, underscores U.S. concerns about the growing threat of Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula 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 the group is emerging as al Qaeda’s most active and sophisticated cell outside the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

U.S. Special Operations forces have spearheaded training aimed at building up Yemen’s capacity to conduct counterterrorism operations.

Yemen had asked for more helicopters to enable it to shuttle its forces more quickly into battle.

The Pentagon and the CIA have sought to keep their expanding roles in Yemen quiet, in part to avert a public backlash against the government.

In recent months, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have shared satellite and surveillance imagery, as well as intercepted communications, with Yemeni security forces to help them carry out air raids against al Qaeda targets, officials said.

Critics say the growing U.S. military involvement 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.

Reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Jackie Frank and Cynthia Osterman