SANAA (AFP) – Four members of Al-Qaeda planning attacks in Yemen’s capital were arrested in possession of explosives, the interior minister said, a day after security forces foiled twin suicide bombings of oil installations.
The arrests come ahead of Wednesday’s presidential and local elections in the tribal-based country, one of the poorest on the planet, where electioneering has been marred by violence.
“The security services have today arrested in Sanaa a cell of four terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda who were planning terrorist attacks” in the capital, Interior Minister General Rashad al-Alimi told a news conference.
The four men, he added, were found with almost 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of explosives, detonators and false documents, and were likely connected to Friday’s abortive attacks on the oil installations.
Alimi said the arrests were the result of a security plan put in place after the escape in February of 23 Al-Qaeda members from a detention centre in Sanaa.
Prime Minister Abdel Kader Bajammal said those arrested had been bent on causing disruption ahead of next week’s ballot.
“The terrorists were aiming to destabilize the country as it is preparing for presidential and local elections,” Bajammal said.
His interior minister, however, vowed the vote would not be disrupted.
“The operations of the terrorists won’t affect the elections,” Alimi said. “The authorities have put in place a Draconian plan to thwart any terrorist acts.”
Yemen’s veteran incumbent head of state Ali Abdullah Saleh is virtually certain to win the presidential poll in which he faces four challengers.
The 64-year-old field marshal has been at the helm since 1978, first as president of the then North Yemen and later as leader of the unified state after north and south merged in May 1990.
More than 50 people have been crushed to death in stampedes during recent campaign rallies by Saleh.
Friday’s attacks came just days after Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri warned that the Gulf and Israel would be the next targets of Al-Qaeda, in a video message coinciding with the fifth anniversary Monday of the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Officials said the bombers, in explosives-laden cars, tried to attack an oil refinery in Maarib, a lawless tribal area in the desert east of Sanaa, and a Canadian-run terminal in the southeastern port of Dhabba on the Gulf of Aden.
Four bombers and a security guard were killed when Yemeni security forces thwarted the attacks, officials said.
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of bin Laden, and in October 2000, 17 US sailors were killed when suicide bombers aboard a small boat rammed destroyer USS Cole off the southern port of Aden in an attack claimed by the militant network.
Since the September 11 attacks, Sanaa has worked with Washington to clamp down on suspected Al-Qaeda sympathisers.
A security force official did not rule out the possibility Friday’s attacks could also be linked with the kidnapping last Sunday of four French tourists in the lawless southeast of the country.
The tourists were abducted by tribesmen in a bid to put pressure on authorities to free jailed members of their tribe, and negotiations with the kidnappers have so far failed to secure their release.