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Friday, 13 October, 2000, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
Attractive base for anti-West Islamists
Protest in Yemen
Yemen has seen many anti-Israel protests in recent days
By Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner

For impoverished, underdeveloped Yemen, political violence is like a disease that won't go away.

Nearly two years after armed Islamist extremists kidnapped a group of western tourists, Yemen is back in the headlines.

The anti-Western violence that shook the country this week comes as a double blow for the government.

Aden port
Business at Aden port may be adversely affected
Firstly, it shows that despite claims to the contrary by Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, groups of well-armed Islamists remain at large in Yemen.

Clearly they have the weapons and the motivation to hit Western targets inside the country.

Secondly, and most worryingly for Yemen's prosperity, an explosion in the heart of Aden harbour is likely to scare off Western investors.

Promoting Aden

The government had been eagerly promoting Aden port, where the USS Cole was attacked on Thursday, as a natural harbour for ships travelling between the Indian Ocean and Europe.

The US Navy certainly thought it made sense.

Since May this year its warships had been using Aden as a place to refuel and take on supplies before sailing to the Gulf, or up the Red Sea.

London-based Islamist Omar Al-Bakri
Islamist Al-Bakri said a muslim group claimed responsibility for the blasts
The US and Yemen have been quietly forging close military ties, despite Yemen's antipathy towards Washington's ally, Israel.

Now both Western military and civil shipping will be wary of docking at Aden port until they are convinced it is safe.

So who carried out these attacks?

Two Muslim groups have so far claimed responsibility, but US investigators have yet to announce their findings.

On Friday a London-based Islamist, Omar Al-Bakri, said a Muslim group calling itself Mohammed's Army had telephoned him to say it carried out both attacks in Aden and Sana'a.

Another previously unknown group under the name of the Islamic Deterrence Forces also says it attacked the US warship.

But the names are less important than the motivation behind the attacks.

Fiercely independent

For militant, anti-Western Islamists, Yemen has long been an attractive base for operations.

The government has limited control outside the main cities.

The huge number of firearms in private hands - 50 million at the last count - makes Yemeni tribesmen fiercely independent of central control.

A Yemeni tribesman aims his gun
Yemen has more 50m firearms in private hands
It is also a country of deep devotion to Islam.

Couple this with the government's historic friendship with revolutionary organisations like Iraq's Baath Party and the PLO, and you have a fertile ground for anti-Western sentiment.

Yet most Yemenis bear little ill will towards Western tourists.

Kidnapping tourists

Until December 1998, the frequent kidnappings of tourists all ended with them being released unharmed after tribesmen extracted a ransom from the government.

That all changed when a mass kidnap of 16 Western tourists by men calling themselves the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army turned violent.

Yemeni troops stormed their hideout, against the request of the British Government.

Four tourists died in the gun battle and relations between Britain and Yemen never recovered.

Yemenis say the kidnappers were remnants of a fighting force the government used to help crush the southern socialists in the 1994 civil war.

Whether true or not, they were an embarrassment to the government, and when their leader was executed last year, Yemen said it had dealt once and for all with Islamist violence.

This week's events appear to disprove that.

Whoever is behind the violence clearly has a deep-felt grudge against the West and its perceived bias towards Israel.

Perhaps the most obvious man the US will be looking to blame is the Saudi-born millionaire Osama Bin Laden, now in hiding in Afghanistan.

But in these violent times, when Arab tempers are at boiling point due to the killing of so many Palestinians by Israelis, there is no shortage of likely suspects.

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See also:

13 Oct 00 | Middle East
Explosion hits UK Yemen embassy
19 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Yemen
13 Oct 00 | Africa
US closes African embassies
14 Jan 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Yemen: Arabia's 'Wild West'
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