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Monday, January 25, 1999 Published at 16:41 GMT

World: Middle East

Analysis: Yemen, extremists and Britain

By Eric Watkins

For some members of the Yemeni Government, the trial of the Britons on terrorism charges has provided a useful opportunity for a media campaign against Britain.

Could the Yemeni government simply be looking for a convenient scapegoat?

Yemen's media barrage started on 8 January when an official newspaper accused Britain of harbouring international terrorists.

Those claims were developed on 10 January by the British press which, acting on tips from "senior Yemeni sources", suggested that a London-based group named Supporters of Sharia (SOS), was at the centre of "the plot".

Media campaign

On 15 January, Yemen's prime minister furthered the campaign by announcing to the media that he had asked for "clarification" from Britain about certain statements of the SOS leader.

[ image: Hamza al-Masri: Accused by Yemen of terrorism]
Hamza al-Masri: Accused by Yemen of terrorism
In its campaign, the Yemen Government claims that SOS leader Abu Hamza sent the five Britons to join the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army led by Abu Hassan.

The government also claims that it caught the five Britons on 24 December and that Abu Hassan then kidnapped the 16 Western tourists on 28 December to secure the release of the five Britons.

Abu Hamza has denied Yemeni Government claims but he has said that more Westerners could be killed outright if any of the original kidnappers is executed.

Shadowy group

While looking into Abu Hamza, US and British investigators will also try to examine Abu Hassan and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. In Yemen the group has long been known to the government, but its role has been hushed up.

[ image: Kidnapping common in Yemen]
Kidnapping common in Yemen
Following US attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan last August, the group issued a threat to retaliate by attacking US interests in Yemen.

But an official at the Yemeni ministry of interior dismissed the threat, telling journalists that the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army was "fictitious".

But the "fictitious" Aden-Abyan Islamic Army made another media appearance on 13 October last year when it sent a statement to the Al-Hayat newspaper. The statement criticised the Yemeni Government.

More ominously, the group threatened to punish any action taken against it "in accordance with the Islamic Shari'ah rulings concerning war against apostates."

Government contacts

But fictitious or not, further Yemeni press reports say the Yemeni Government had regular contact with Abu Hassan, last meeting him in mid-November - just 40 days before the fateful kidnapping.

No less important to US and British investigators are numerous crimes which have been committed in Yemen over the past year.

In Abyan itself, there have been bombings, a kidnapping of two Belgian tourists by unidentified "tribesmen" in October, and even a military-style attack on government forces so professionally done that the relevant authorities refused to discuss it.

Elsewhere in the country there have been equally serious crimes with Islamist overtones. Indeed, following the murder of an Egyptian cleric in Sanaa by an unknown hand, suspicious Islamists asked whether "the shaykh's murder falls within the policy of eliminating terrorism?"

The Yemeni Government played a role in the life of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. That role must be clarified.

Eric Watkins is a freelance writer on Yemeni affairs

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