SANAA (AFP) – The US and British embassies in Yemen closed on Sunday amid threats from a local branch of Al-Qaeda, after Washington and Britain vowed to help the impoverished country in its fight against extremism.
The moves came after US President Barack Obama blamed a Yemen-based Al-Qaeda affiliate for the foiled Christmas Day attack on a US airliner and a day after US regional military commander General David Petraeus visited Sanaa.
Claiming responsibility for the thwarted attack on the Detroit-bound Northwest airliner, Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen urged attacks on embassies and other Western targets in Yemen.
“The US Embassy in Sanaa is closed today, January 3, 2010, in response to ongoing threats by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to attack American interests in Yemen,” said a statement on the embassy’s website.
Britain followed suit, with a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office in London confirming that its Sanaa embassy was closed on Sunday “for security reasons.”
A decision would be be taken later as to whether the mission will reopen on Monday, she added.
A Yemeni government official earlier told AFP the British embassy “is closed today for security reasons, and out of fear of possible Al-Qaeda reactions.” But he stressed there were “no direct Al-Qaeda threats.”
Spain has also decided to close its embassy in Sanaa on Monday and Tuesday, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo said on its website, quoting embassy sources.
AQAP on Monday urged further attacks on Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula.
“We call upon every Muslim who cares about his religion and doctrine to assist in expelling the apostasies from the Arabian Peninsula, by killing every crusader who works at their embassies or other places, declare it an all-out war against every crusader on Mohammad’s peninsula on land, air and sea,” an AQAP statement said.
London and Washington have agreed to fund Yemen’s special Counter-Terrorism Unit — a special force which in the past has received US training and assistance.
Battling the “murderous ideology” of extremist Muslims would probably become “a feature of this decade,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Sunday.
He told BBC television that Islamist extremists squeezed out of Pakistan and Afghanistan would emerge in struggling states like Yemen and Somalia, as he pledged extra support.
“Yemen has been recognised, like Somalia, to be one of the areas where we’ve got to not only keep an eye on but we’ve got to do more,” he said.
Britain has called an international meeting on combating extremism in Yemen for London on January 28, in parallel with a conference on Afghanistan drawing senior ministers or leaders from over 40 nations.
The Yemen sessions of the international conference called by Britain would help Sanaa “develop the means and will” to tackle extremism, Brown said.
On September 17, 2008, the US embassy was the target of an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in which 19 people were killed — seven attackers and 12 others, including Yemeni guards and civilians, one of them an American woman.
Last month the defence ministry newspaper said that a raid north of the capital on December 17 killed four suspects and foiled a plot to bomb the British embassy.
Yemen — the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden — has welcomed the British and US funding decision.
“Any assistance provided to Yemen’s counter-terrorism force will be most welcome,” a government official told AFP, adding that Sanaa would also need help to modernise its coastguard because of the “danger” from Somalia.
Somalia’s Shebab insurgents pledged on Friday to send militants across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen to help the Al-Qaeda affiliate behind the failed US airliner bombing.
Obama blamed AQAP on Saturday for the attack on the US jet by 23-year-old Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
“We know that he travelled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies,” the US president said.
“It appears that he joined an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and that this group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”