LONDON (AFP) – World powers gathered Wednesday for talks on how to tackle Al-Qaeda militants operating out of Yemen, seen as a new frontier in the war against terror after an attempt to blow up a US-bound jet.
Ministers and officials from 21 countries will discuss security as well as the wider economic and political problems facing Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has flown to London for the meeting, which is expected to start at 1600 GMT and will be chaired by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Experts warn that unless Yemen is stabilised, it could become a “failed state” like its lawless neighbour Somalia.
“What we want above all is a commitment on the development (and) the building of our capacities against radicalisation,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said on the eve of the meeting.
But the shortness of the talks — they will last for just two hours, on the eve of a bigger conference in London on Afghanistan — has already provoked accusations from some British lawmakers that it is a gimmick.
Miliband said Sunday that Yemen “has been rising on our radar for the last 18 months to two years”, but its troubles sprang to prominence at Christmas, when a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate explosives in his underwear on a plane approaching the US city of Detroit.
He appears to have been radicalised while a student in London and later spent time in Yemen.
US President Barack Obama has accused Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — of training, equipping and directing the suspect. Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the plot in an audio message broadcast Sunday, and vowed further strikes would follow.
The London meeting, called by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, will focus on “how to assist the Yemen government to improve security, root out Al-Qaeda and promote economic and social development,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Yemen’s many problems — including corruption, water shortages and a dwindling oil industry that provides three-quarters of government revenues — should be viewed as a package, according to academics.
“It’s essential that the international community comes together with a collective approach and embeds any counter-terrorist measures within a whole of government approach,” said Ginny Hill, an associate fellow at foreign affairs think tank Chatham House in London.
“Any solution for Yemen requires a regional response which includes… Yemen’s relationships with Somalia.”
Western countries have been providing support for Yemen for some time — Britain’s initiatives include supporting a counter-terrorism police unit with the United States — but some say the Yemeni government needs to do more.
However, Yemen is strongly opposed to Western intervention in its efforts to combat Al-Qaeda.
It stepped up its own campaign earlier this month with a military crackdown against Al-Qaeda, thought to be operating out of mountains east of Sanaa, and has stopped granting visas on arrival at airports to try to prevent militants coming in.