SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen said on Monday it had arrested 29 suspected al Qaeda members and vowed to carry out more raids against the group, after an attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner turned the spotlight on the poor Arab country.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen has grown in the past year and Washington has said a Nigerian who tried to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day said he had help from al Qaeda militants in Yemen, where the government is battling instability.
The United States and Yemen’s neighbor Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will use instability in the country to carry out attacks in the world’s main oil exporting region and beyond.
Yemen’s national security chief Ali Mohammad Al-Ansi said the arrests took place after Yemen launched strikes against the group, saying it planned to attack oil facilities, government buildings and the British embassy.
“Until now 29 persons have been arrested and authorities are still following up and pursuing the remaining terrorists,” he said in remarks reported on the Defense Ministry website.
Ansi did not refer to the attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Abdulmutallab, who is charged with trying to blow up the aircraft, has been linked to Yemen. Under questioning in the United States, he said al Qaeda operatives in the country gave him an explosive device and trained him on how to detonate it, a U.S. official said.
“There will be more operations awaiting terrorist elements and their nests,” the website quoted an unidentified security official as saying.
Last week, Sanaa said it had killed more than 30 al Qaeda members in an air raid. The dead possibly included the top two leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an American Muslim preacher linked to a man who shot dead 13 people at a U.S. army base.
Raids on December 17 killed about 30 militants, the government said. Opposition groups said about 50 civilians were killed, including women and children. AQAP said the raids was carried out by U.S. warplanes and vowed to retaliate.
The New York Times has said the United States gave military hardware, intelligence and other support to Yemeni forces for the raids.
Besides al Qaeda, Yemen is also grappling with a Shi’ite revolt in the north and a separatist movement in the south with both complaining of social and economic discrimination, which the government denies.
The conflict in northern Yemen drew in Saudi Arabia last month when the Shi’ite rebels briefly occupied some Saudi territory, prompting Riyadh to launch an offensive.
The rebels said on their website on Monday Saudi warplanes carried out 36 raids against border areas and northern Yemen late on Sunday.
Writing by Ulf Laessing; editing by Andrew Dobbie