SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen has detained around 50 foreigners accused of links to al Qaeda after intensifying monitoring of Arabic language schools, the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper said on Monday.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that 12 of its citizens were being held by Yemen but gave no details on why they were detained or whether the United States had anything to do with their being picked up.
Al-Hayat said that U.S., British, French and Malaysian nationals were among the foreigners detained since a failed December attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane. The Nigerian suspect in that case had studied Arabic in the country’s capital Sanaa.
Yemen’s Western allies and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is trying to exploit instability in Yemen to use the impoverished country, with domestic conflicts in its north and south, as a base to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
Citing Yemeni security sources, al-Hayat said one of those arrested was a 24-year-old French man who travelled to Yemen in October from Egypt to study Arabic, even though he was fluent in the language.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Yemeni authorities had 12 U.S. citizens in custody but declined to provide further information about them.
Asked if the United States had provided information that led to the detention of the 12 U.S. citizens, Crowley replied: “We have ... great cooperation with the government of Yemen.”
“Together, we are doing our best to help Yemen ... reduce the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That’s a threat to Yemen. It’s a threat to the United States. But beyond that, I’m not going to talk about specifics,” he said.
Prized for the purity of its dialect and inexpensive living costs, Yemen was long a popular destination for students of Arabic. But over the years, foreign Islamists have occasionally arrived in Yemen in the guise of studying Arabic only to join up with militants.
Senior Yemeni government officials declined to comment on the report of arrests. A Yemeni official had said on Sunday that authorities detained several U.S. and French students on security grounds but made no mention of further detentions.
Yemen, next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has been a Western security concern since Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based regional al Qaeda arm, claimed responsibility for the failed plane bombing.
The Yemeni official said the handful of Westerners he said were being held had been taken into custody at the behest of their own governments, but declined to give details.
A source close to the Yemeni government said two Americans and a French citizen were thought to be held, but the government official could not confirm that. Officials at the French embassies in Sanaa had no immediate comment.
Separately in south Yemen, five people were killed in gunbattles and shelling in the flashpoint province of Dalea after separatists raised secessionist flags over their homes and protested in the street, witnesses said.
North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but many in the south, where most of impoverished Yemen’s oil facilities are located, complain that northerners usurp their resources while discriminating against them.
Yemen’s cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the demands of most of its people in a heavily armed society that is growing increasingly discontented and where people sometimes take struggles to the street.
In the eastern province of Maarib, senior al Qaeda member Hamza al-Dhayyani has given himself up to Yemeni authorities, a government official told Reuters on Monday. He was the second al Qaeda figure in Maarib to surrender in two days.
Dhayyani, charged by Yemeni authorities with recruiting the al Qaeda elements who killed seven Spanish tourists in 2007 by hitting their convoy in Maarib with a car bomb, was handed over to Sanaa’s security authorities and will be sent to prison.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Erika Solomon; Editing by Myra MacDonald and Mohammad Zargham