Yemeni authorities 'foil al-Qaeda plot to seize ports'

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Yemen says it has foiled a major al-Qaeda plot to blow up oil pipelines and seize two of the country's main ports.

Government spokesman Rajeh Badi said the plans included taking control of the al-Dhaba oil terminal and killing or kidnapping foreign workers.

The authorities have introduced security measures to protect government buildings and other key targets.

Hundreds of armoured vehicles have been deployed in the capital, Sanaa, while the US and UK have withdrawn diplomats.

The US is also reported to be preparing special operations forces for possible strikes against the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Brigadier General Mohammed al-Qaedi: "Terrorist acts are rejected by the Yemeni people and the country's institutions."

A suspected US drone strike killed seven alleged al-Qaeda militants in south-eastern Yemen on Wednesday - the fifth such strike in two weeks.

Yemeni security officials said missiles hit members of a Bedouin tribe west of Attaq, in the province of Shabwa, and destroyed two vehicles.

'Audacious plot'

BBC Washington correspondent David Willis says it appears that Yemen was at the centre of a complex and audacious plot which - had it succeeded - would have given al-Qaeda control over a crucial aspect of the country's infrastructure.

Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said the plot involved blowing up oil pipelines and taking control of certain locations - including two ports in the south, one of which accounts for the bulk of Yemen's oil exports.

Analysis

The threat picture in Yemen grows ever murkier. First came the hurried withdrawal of nearly all the Western diplomatic corps from the country on Tuesday, prompted by fears of a major al-Qaeda attack against US or Western embassies and their staff.

Now the Yemeni authorities have announced what appears to be a separate plot by al-Qaeda to target Yemen's own government installations, including ports, pipelines and the military. The hard part is distinguishing this from the ongoing, underlying threat from all-Qaeda and other militants that exists anyway, throughout the year.

Yemen has long been troubled by disgruntled tribesmen blowing up pipelines that run through their territory, or kidnapping foreigners to pressure the government for economic concessions.

But since the Arab Spring upheavals, al-Qaeda in Yemen has profited from a security vacuum in remoter provinces and continues to try to stage spectacular attacks.

"There were attempts to control key cities in Yemen like Mukalla and Bawzir," said Mr Badi.

"This would be co-ordinated with attacks by al-Qaeda members on the gas facilities in Shabwa and the blowing up of the gas pipeline at Balhaf," a gas export facility, he added.

Security officials said one plan was for AQAP members wearing Yemeni army uniforms to take control of the Canadian-run al-Dhaba oil terminal, on the Arabian Sea in the south-eastern Mukalla region of Hadramawt province, and then kill or kidnap foreigners working there.

Other militants would also try to sabotage pipelines to "create panic among the Yemeni army and Yemeni security services", Mr Badi told the Associated Press.

The plot, which also involved smuggling explosives into Sanaa, was reportedly uncovered with Western and Arab help. The attacks would have taken place on the 27th day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, known as "Laylat al-Qadr" or the "Night of Destiny", which was last Sunday.

Yemeni officials quoted by AP said they believed the motive for the plot was retaliation for the killing of senior al-Qaeda figure Said al-Shihri, who was critically wounded in a November drone strike and later died of his injuries. AQAP confirmed his death last month.

Security blitz

The BBC's Abdullah Ghorab, in Sanaa, says there are unprecedented security measures in the capital, with hundreds of armoured vehicles deployed around the city.

Map of Yemen

Tanks and troops have surrounded foreign missions, government offices and the airport, and senior officials are being advised to limit their movements.

A human rights advocate in Sanaa, Samia Haddad, told the BBC's World Update programme that the atmosphere in the city was tense.

"Everybody is feeling that there is something going on, but nobody knows what is going on exactly," she said.

However, interior ministry spokesman Brig-Gen Mohammed al-Qaedi told the BBC that the increased security was "not out of fear for specific threats".

"State security forces are carrying out their job as normal, although there have been instructions to be more alert and increase their presence in public areas and parks," he added.

Both the US, which closed 20 embassies worldwide on Sunday, and the UK have withdrawn diplomatic staff from Yemen and urged their citizens to leave.

The US embassy and consulate closures reportedly followed intercepted conversations between two senior al-Qaeda figures, including top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, suggesting attacks.

According to the New York Times, the US intercepted communications between Zawahiri and AQAP's leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi.

Foreign nationals walk towards the departure area of Sanaa International Airport US and UK nationals are leaving Sanaa on advice from their embassies

The paper said the conversation represented one of the most serious plots since the 9/11 attacks.

The Yemeni government spokesman said the international community "feared the reaction of al-Qaeda" and added: "We understand such fears."

But the foreign ministry has criticised the embassy withdrawals, saying it "serves the interests of the extremists".

US special forces

On Tuesday evening, sources told BBC Newsnight that the US was preparing special operations forces for possible strike operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Although the US has previously sent special forces to train counter-terrorist units, there are now suggestions that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), may be preparing units for strike operations, the sources said.

Analysts say that if this were to ever put into practice, it would mark a huge and controversial step up in US-Yemeni military co-operation.

Yemeni tribesmen have often said they will not tolerate the presence of foreign forces on their soil in a combat role.

JSOC co-operates closely with the CIA, which has mounted four drone strikes in Yemen over the past 10 days.

Yemen is the base of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and both the White House and the US state department have said the current threat comes from AQAP but have refused to divulge further details.

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