Clinton in Yemen for talks on security

SANAA (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton made the first trip by a U.S. Secretary of State to Yemen in 20 years on Tuesday to underline to the Sanaa government the urgency and importance of fighting al Qaeda at its grassroots.

Washington is anxious for Yemen, next door to the world’s top oil exporter, to step up its fight against an al Qaeda wing based in the Arabian peninsula state where militants have attempted ambitious attacks against U.S. and Western targets.

“It’s not enough to have military-to-military relations,” Clinton said before her plane touched down in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, where she was due for talks with President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“We need to try to broaden the dialogue. We need to have this dialogue with the government,” she added.

Yemen-based al Qaeda militants, engaged in bloody hit-and-run attacks on Yemeni forces in recent months, have also grabbed the focus of Washington with failed plots to bomb cargo planes in October and to blow up a U.S. passenger jet in 2009.

Clinton’s visit to Yemen, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in over two decades, could also help clear the air after ties were tested by WikiLeaks’ disclosure of U.S. state department cables about U.S.-Yemen security coordination.

The cables said Saleh had offered to mask U.S. cruise missile strikes in Yemen on al Qaeda targets that could have inflamed public sentiment, claiming they were instead carried out by his own armed forces.

U.S.-Yemen relations had also been strained by Washington’s desire for a quicker pace of economic and political reforms, which it hopes would slow recruitment by militants, an aide to U.S. President Barack Obama said last month.

Yemen, whose limited resources are already strained by two domestic rebellions, later said it would set up special anti-terrorism forces in four provinces in the south and east to fight al Qaeda militants.

Clinton said Washington and Yemen now increasingly had “a very strong partnership” on counter terrorism.

A Yemeni government official said talks with Saleh would focus on security and military issues and ways Washington could support Sanaa in its fight against al Qaeda.

Additional reporting by Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa, writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Samia Nakhoul