SANAA, Yemen, (AP) – Yemen’s president said he is ready to open a dialogue with al-Qaeda fighters who lay down their weapons and renounce violence, despite U.S. pressure to crack down on the terror group.
The United States has complained in the past that Yemen struck deals with al-Qaeda fighters and freed them from prison after they promised not to engage in terrorism. Some later broke those promises and are now believed to be active in al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed that his government is “determined to stand up to the challenges” of al-Qaeda and that his security forces will track down as many al-Qaeda fighters as possible among those who refuse to stop violence.
But he left the door open for negotiations.
“Dialogue is the best way … even with al-Qaeda, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason,” he said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV aired late Saturday. “We are ready to reach understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism.”
The U.S. says al-Qaeda in Yemen has become a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas. Washington has dramatically beefed up counterterrorism funds and training for Yemen to fight the terror group, and last month Yemeni forces carried out its heaviest strikes in years on al-Qaeda strongholds.
But Saleh’s government has been weakened by the multiple wars and crises in the impoverished, fragmented nation. Mistrust of the United States is widespread among the population, as is Islamic extremism. So the government is wary that an overly harsh assault on al-Qaeda — especially with overt American help — could raise opposition.
Hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters — foreigners and Yemenis — are believed to be in Yemen, sheltered in mountainous regions where tribes angry at the central government hold sway.