Al-Qaeda veterans 'are flooding into Yemen'
Dozens of Saudi and Egyptian veterans of al-Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan have been pouring into Yemen, a senior official has warned.
In the gloomiest internal assessment of Yemen's security yet, he said jihadis from across the Arab world are hiding in the lawless hills of Shabwa province where the so-called Christmas Day "underwear bomber" is thought to have been trained, its governor, Ali Hasan al-Ahmadi, said.
"There are dozens of Saudi and Egyptian al-Qaeda militants who came to the province," said Shabwa's governor, Ali Hasan al-Ahmadi.
He told the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper the militants had joined homegrown Yemeni radicals both from Shabwa and other regions of the country.
The province, in the south-east of the country, was one of the targets of a series of air raids against al-Qaeda targets conducted by the Yemeni authorities with American military support shortly before Christmas.
Among those targeted was Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who has given lectures in London and is believed to have inspired both the army psychiatrist who went on a shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate a bomb in his underpants over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Awlaki is thought to have a house in Shabwa, though his family, which is local to the area, have said he survived the attack.
Gordon Brown has called an international conference in London later this month to discuss how to deal with Yemen's well-publicised security problems.
Abdulmutallab admits being trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen, and is said by the authorities to have been in Shabwa.
They deny claims that large-scale American military intervention will be needed for it to re-establish authority over the country, which is torn by a civil war with Shia rebels in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an active al-Qaeda network.
But the names of al-Qaeda members who have openly advertised their presence in the country, and who include several former inmates of the Guantanamo Bay internment camp, show its appeal as a new base as the Americans step up their campaign in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border regions.
In a sign of some desperation, President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the weekend called on al-Qaeda members to lay down their arms and enter into negotiation with his government.
"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 television. "We are ready to reach an understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism."
A large-scale al-Qaeda presence in Yemen could be more dangerous to the region than in Afghanistan. Yemen is a short boat ride from Somalia, a state that has already failed, and is deeply impoverished.
Yet its neighbours provide the world with a large proportion of its oil and gas supplies.
Yemen is the only Gulf state not to be a member of the Gulf Co-operation Council. It is appealing to join in the hope of attracting investment, but fellow members fear being "contaminated" by its social and security problems.
GCC nationals have visa-free access to each others' countries, which would impose a severe security burden if Yemen were included.