Abubaker Al-Qirbi's comments in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press depart from recent statements by Yemeni authorities that the country site of the deadly USS Cole bombing is free of al-Qaida operatives.
Sitting in an office decorated with traditional stained glass windows, the British-educated Al-Qirbi said Yemen was responding to a U.S. list of suspects that American investigators want to question for alleged links to Osama bin Laden. But the foreign minister appealed for understanding of the difficulties faced by Yemen, a tribal society where large areas are outside the government's full control.
Government forces, Al-Qirbi said, could not just storm into tribal areas to apprehend suspects for fear of turning the powerful tribes against the government.
Al-Qirbi did not say how many names were on the American list, but a U.S. embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were 39 Yemenis that Washington wanted to question, some of whom may no longer be in Yemen. The U.S. military also is believed to be holding several Yemenis among the hundreds of detainees captured in Afghanistan in the war on terrorism.
Al-Qirbi said that Yemen had made its own arrests since Sept. 11. He said government forces in an undisclosed location inside Yemen were negotiating the surrender of the two most important men on the U.S. list, whom he identified as Qaed Salim Sunian al-Harethi and Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal.
Al-Ahdal is thought to be a suspect in the Cole bombing and al-Harethi is believed to be a top al-Qaida operative in Yemen.
"The government's political security force knows where they are and I think the issue now is whether they will hand themselves over or if the government will have to take stern action to arrest them," Al-Qirbi told AP.
He did not say where the men were or how long negotiations for their surrender had been going on.
Later Tuesday, Al-Qirbi told reporters that the Yemeni investigation into the October 2000 Cole bombing has ended and a trial date is expected to be set soon.
He did not say when the case was given to prosecutors or predict when they would set a trial date. "(But) as for the Yemeni government, the investigations are over," Al-Qirbi said.
He told AP that under an agreement with Washington detained suspects were being interrogated "in cooperation with the United States." If charged, the Yemenis would be tried at home, Al-Qirbi said.
Al-Harethi and al-Ahdal were among a legion of Arab fighters who returned home from Afghanistan in the 1990s, where they had taken part in the fight against the occupying Soviet army.
Al-Qirbi said that the majority of Yemenis who fought in Afghanistan now lead normal lives and do not have links with al-Qaida.
However, Al-Qibi said, "there remains a small core of militant Afghan Arabs in Yemen that is probably maintaining contacts with bin Laden." Those individuals are known to the government and their activities were being watched, he said.
Yemen has sent conflicting signals on its anti-terrorism campaign since Sept. 11, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh telling an Egyptian newspaper recently that al-Qaida has no presence in his country and that a military operation pushed by the United States failed to turn up any bin Laden fighters.
Washington has been pushing Yemen the birthplace of bin Laden's father for greater cooperation on anti-terrorism since the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemeni port that killed 17 sailors. The United States blamed bin Laden's al-Qaida network for that attack and the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Al-Qirbi, who went to medical school at Britain's University of Edinburgh, said that Yemen had taken several measures to combat terrorism and uproot al-Qaida, often with the help of the United States.
Since December, more troops had been stationed in three regions where al-Qaida suspects were believed to have been active and that close cooperation with tribes in those regions had led to the recent arrest of at least 24 suspects.
In addition, he pointed to a government crackdown on religious institutions that has brought the curriculum under government control. Al-Qirbi said that about 125 foreign students studying in such schools have been deported and strict visa requirements imposed to prevent suspected militants from entering the country.
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