SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen has thwarted an al Qaeda plot to attack vital installations in a province that is home to much of the country’s oil resources and a key pipeline that ferries crude to the coast, the defense ministry said Monday.
The ministry’s online newspaper said security forces had destroyed an al Qaeda hideout in the Maarib province and foiled a “plot on the verge of implementation to target economic and government installations and army camps.”
It did not say what installations were being targeted.
Yemen, strategically located next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has been a major Western security concern since a Yemen-based al Qaeda wing claimed responsibility for a failed December attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.
Yemen’s Western allies and Saudi Arabia fear a resurgent al Qaeda wing could exploit unrest to use impoverished Yemen as a base for destabilizing attacks in the region and beyond. They want Sanaa to resolve internal conflict and consolidate power.
Tension has been high in Maarib, east of the capital, since a Yemeni mediator who was also Maarib’s deputy governor was killed in May in an errant air strike targeting al Qaeda, prompting clashes between his kinsmen and government troops.
The announcement that authorities had foiled an al Qaeda plot followed several days of gun battles between Yemeni forces and militants in Wadi Obeida, a suspected militant stronghold in Maarib.
At least one person was killed and around 20 more wounded in fighting and shelling in the area, according to the government. Tribesmen suspected of being aligned with al Qaeda later blew up a crude pipeline linking Maarib to the Red Sea coast.
Tribal leaders, however, have given higher casualty tolls in the government’s assault, launched Wednesday with the stated aim of catching suspected al Qaeda gunmen thought to be behind an ambush of a military convoy that killed a commander and a soldier.
Al Qaeda members, many of whom hail from local tribes, have forged links with Yemen tribesmen in efforts to establish a support base in the Arabian peninsula country, where government control is weak in many areas outside the capital Sanaa.
The defense ministry said authorities had identified militants responsible for bombing the pipeline Saturday.
“Those who blew up the pipeline are a dangerous and wanted group of al Qaeda elements,” the defense ministry’s report said, saying their ranks included Yemenis and at least two Saudi nationals.
In addition to fighting al Qaeda, Yemen also faces growing unrest from southern separatists and is trying to cement a fragile truce with northern Shi’ite rebels.