Yemen's president said he is ready to open a dialogue with al Qaeda fighters who lay down their weapons and renounce violence, despite U.S. pressure to crack down on the terror group.
The United States has complained in the past that Yemen struck deals with al Qaeda fighters and freed them from prison after they promised not to engage in terrorism. Some later broke those promises and are now believed to be active in al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed that his government is "determined to stand up to the challenges" of al Qaeda and that his security forces will track down as many al Qaeda fighters as possible among those who refuse to stop violence.
But he left the door open for negotiations.
"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 TV aired late Saturday. "We are ready to reach (an) understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism."
The Obama administration says al Qaeda in Yemen has become a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day. Washington has dramatically beefed up counterterrorism funds and training for Yemen to fight the terror group, and last month Yemeni forces carried out its heaviest strikes in years on al Qaeda strongholds.
But Saleh's government has been weakened by the multiple wars and crises in the impoverished, fragmented nation. Mistrust of the United States is widespread among the population, as is Islamic extremism. So the government is wary that an overly harsh assault on al Qaeda - especially with overt American help - could raise opposition.
Hundreds of al Qaeda fighters - foreigners and Yemenis - are believed to be sheltered in Yemen's mountainous regions where tribes angry at the central government hold sway. Yemenis in the group have tribal links that make if difficult for security forces to pursue them for fear of angering the well-armed tribes.
The regime has also struck alliances with hardline Islamists to ensure their followers' support. In a prayer sermon on Friday, Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani - one of the country's most prominent clerics - railed against U.S. pressure to fight al Qaeda, accusing Washington and the United Nations of seeking to "impose an international occupation of Yemen."
The U.S. has labeled al-Zindani "a specially designated global terrorist" for alleged links to al Qaeda. But he is a close ally of Saleh, and the government denies he is a member of the terror group.
One al Qaeda sympathizer, Ali Mohammed Omar, warns that "any movement against al Qaeda will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime," because it will be stretched between counterterrorism, its ongoing war against Shiite rebels in the north and secessionist turmoil in the south.
"When it fights al Qaeda, Yemen is seen as fighting on behalf of the Americans," he told The Associated Press.
Omar is one of thousands of Yemenis who went to fight alongside other Islamic extremists against the Soviet military in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He puts the number at around 20,000 - not counting younger Yemenis who more recently fought against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 42-year-old Omar, who said he is not a member of al Qaeda, warns of a bedrock of sympathy for the terror group among Yemenis that could turn to outright support, particularly if the United States becomes directly involved.
"An American intervention to fight al Qaeda will draw everyone to the side of al Qaeda," he said. "The people are waiting. As soon as any American or British troops descend on Yemen, they will be torn to pieces."
Omar, who said he met al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden twice during his time in Afghanistan from 1990-1992, illustrates the San'a government's complicated ties with extremists. He was jailed twice after his return to Yemen in 1992. But now Omar, based in the southern city of Aden, runs an organization against the south's secession movement - apparently part of government attempts to break the movement, though he denies receiving direct support from San'a.
The government has used Islamic extremist fighters against secessionists in the past and is believed to be currently using them against Shiite rebels.
Yemeni officials have argued in the past that the policy of reconciling with al Qaeda fighters and extremists who are not members of the group is in part a necessity, given the realities in the country. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is charge of security, said 600 veterans of the Afghan war of the 1980s and later conflicts there have gone through a rehabilitation program with clerics and officials and "are now good citizens."
But others jailed by Yemen and later released have since returned to al Qaeda activities, such as Fahd al-Quso, who is wanted by the United States for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison by Yemen in 2005 but then released three years later.
Now he is on the run with other al Qaeda fighters in the eastern province of Shabwa, a known stronghold of the terror group, said the province's governor, Ali Hassan al-Ahmar.
Until recently al-Quso was at his home in Aden and "wasn't active," al-Ahmar said in an interview Sunday with the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. "He claimed that he was just staying at home, but it's clear he was meeting with groups of al Qaeda elements, and perhaps with elements from outside Yemen. ... It became clear that his location was a meeting place for al Qaeda."