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US senators talk terrorism, Gitmo issues in Yemen

world Updated: Aug 18, 2009 00:10 IST

A delegation of US senators led by John McCain and the president of Yemen discussed on Monday ways to help the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country battle the threat from al-Qaeda.

The state SABA news agency said the American team and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh focused on “bilateral issues and fields of joint cooperation.”

No details immediately emerged from the meeting, but McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan confirmed earlier that the talks would include counterterrorism cooperation and Guantanamo detainees.

Yemen has been a professed US ally in the fight against terrorism but President Barack Obama has hesitated to send home the nearly 100 Yemeni inmates held at Guantanamo Bay prison because of Yemen’s history of either releasing extremists or allowing them to escape from prison.

The country, which is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, has been the site of numerous high-profile, al-Qaeda-linked attacks, including the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors.

The US visit comes at a particularly difficult time for Yemen.

In addition to the al-Qaida threat, Saleh’s Sunni-led government is facing a vigorous southern secessionist movement and an escalating tribal Shiite rebellion in a northern province along the border with Saudi Arabia.

Fighting in the north appeared to escalate on Monday with the rebels claiming in statements to have made a number of advances, including taking control of several strategic areas in the northern Saada province which borders Saudi Arabia.

The rebels also claimed to have launched Katyusha rockets on an army camp in Saada and promised more strikes in the future.

The rebels’ claims came after Yemen’s defense minister earlier in the day said a stepped-up counteroffensive by government troops had paralyzed the rebels’ movements and dealt them a severe blow.

The province has been closed to journalists, and the reports could not be independently verified.

The current round of fighting that began last week marks a major escalation in the five-year-old conflict.

The Shiite rebels complain the government ignores their needs and has allowed Wahhabis, people adhering to an ultraconservative version of Sunni Islam found in Saudi Arabia, too strong of a voice in the country. The Wahhabis, who consider Shiites to be heretics, gained influence after helping the Yemeni government win the 1994 civil war with the secessionist south.

The Yemen government has portrayed the rebels as a fundamentalist religious group supported by Iran.

The stability of Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, is a key concern for both Saudi Arabia and the US who worry that the lawlessness there could provide cover for al-Qaeda militants who have sought sanctuary in the impoverished nation.

Along with rampant lawlessness, Yemen is also struggling with a worsening economy as a result of falling oil prices.

The American delegation has been on a Mideast trip since last week and has already made stops in Libya and Iraq. It also includes Senators Joseph Lieberman, Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham.