SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen on Monday sentenced to death an al Qaeda bomb-maker who told the judge the “demise” of the country was in the hands of militants whose southern hideouts are being targeted by air raids.
Saleh al-Shawish was arrested in January and prosecutors said he specialized in explosives while training with jihadist militants in Afghanistan.
Yemen is trying to quell a resurgent branch of al Qaeda in the country, which has increased its attacks on both Western and government targets in the Arabian Peninsula state, a neighbor of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
Shawish confessed in court to involvement in al Qaeda, the judge said in his sentencing, including attacks on oil sites, military bases and checkpoints. His indictment said his expertise was building bombs and preparing suicide bombers.
“He belonged to al Qaeda and caused the death of a number of innocent people and damaged Yemen’s ... economic interests,” the judge said. “The punishment for this is the death penalty.”
Shawish, who is from the eastern province of Hadramout, rejected an appeal and told the judge: “God willing, your demise is in our hands, starting in Abyan.”
Security forces are trying to root out Islamist militants hiding in the mountains of the Mudiyah district of Abyan.
Six suspected al Qaeda members have been killed in three days of clashes and air raids, a local official said on Monday.
Yemeni planes bombed al Qaeda positions on Sunday after the group ambushed a tank column, killing four soldiers. Shelling also killed four civilians, raising the death toll to 14.
Security forces have intermittently clashed in recent months with militants in Abyan, along the Arabian Sea coast.
The cases of 23 suspects held after two bombs killed four people at a sport stadium in the southern port of Aden has been sent to a court for trial, the Defense Ministry said on its website on Monday.
Yemeni officials have been trying to allay security fears after the October 11 blasts, which preceded a regional soccer championship due to be held in Yemen next month.
The government, under pressure to resolve domestic conflicts in order to focus on al Qaeda, is also trying to cement a truce with Shi’ite rebels to end a northern civil war that raged on and off since 2004, and defuse a separatist revolt in the south.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which mostly has Yemeni and Saudi members, rose to the forefront of Western security concerns after claiming a failed U.S. airliner bombing in December.
Occasional missile strikes during a U.S.-backed crackdown on al Qaeda have killed civilians as well as militants.
Yemen denies U.S. forces are directly involved, but al Qaeda messages in recent months have accused the government of a growing partnership with the U.S. military against the group, vowing attacks on state and foreign targets.
France urged spouses and children of its citizens last week to leave following a rocket attack targeting a British diplomat in Sanaa and the death of a Frenchman after a security guard at a site of Austrian oil and gas firm OMV opened fire.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mokhashaf in Aden; writing by Erika Solomon and Firouz Sedarat; editing by Mark Heinrich