Last updated: January 4, 2010 2:38 pm

Third western embassy closes in Yemen

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France has become the third western nation to close its embassy in Yemen as security fears mount. The US and British embassies in the capital Sana’a were shut for a second day on Monday following threats from a Yemen-based al-Qaeda group that has claimed responsibility for the foiled Christmas day attack on a transatlantic passenger jet.

The French foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday. “Our ambassador decided on January 3 not to authorise any public access to the diplomatic mission until further notice.”

Meanwhile on Monday Yemen claimed its forces had fought al Qaeda militants, killing at least two they said were behind the security threats against foreign missions.

On its website, the US embassy on Sunday said the closure was “in response to ongoing threats by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to attack American interests in Yemen”. The UK embassy made no comment. However, the closure of the embassies in the Yemen capital underlined the seriousness with which western governments are taking the threat posed by AQAP.

John Brennan, a senior US counterterrorism official, told CNN “there are indications that al-Qaeda is planning an attack against a target in Sana’a”. His comments came amid international concern that Yemen could become an important incubator and training hub for al-Qaeda.

AQAP is suspected of training Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who was allegedly involved in the foiled December 25 airline attack.

The group claims to have provided him with the explosive device he allegedly attempted to detonate as the jet was about to land in Detroit. He was in Yemen between August and December, ostensibly to study Arabic.

On Saturday, Barack Obama, the US president, accused the al-Qaeda group of being behind the foiled attack. “We know that he [Abdulmutallab] travelled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies,” Mr Obama said in his weekly radio address.

“It appears that he joined an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and that this group ... trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”

General David Petraeus, a top US military official, met Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh on on Saturday to discuss security measures to tackle al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the White House on Sunday said that passengers travelling to the US from Nigeria and Yemen would be subject to stricter searches, as well as travellers from countries accused by the US of sponsoring terrorism, a list that covers Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

The office of Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, said Britain and the US had agreed to intensify their joint work to tackle “the emerging terrorist threat” from both Yemen and Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden.

BAA, the UK airports operator, said travellers would be forced to go through full-body scanners “as soon as practical”. Introduction would start at London’s Heathrow.

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