- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen | Security forces killed two suspected al Qaeda militants in clashes outside the Yemeni capital on Monday, officials said, as the French and Czech embassies closed their doors to the public, joining their U.S. and British counterparts, in response to threats of attack by the terror group’s offshoot here.

The clashes took place in a region northeast of the capital where last month the government carried out intensified raids against an al Qaeda cell it said was plotting attacks against foreign interests, possibly including embassies. In that Dec. 17 raid, officials said four would-be suicide bombers were killed.

The U.S. and British embassies closed Sunday after what U.S. officials said were signs that al Qaeda was planning an attack in San’a, possibly against the diplomatic missions.

An officer on duty at the U.S. Embassy in San’a said Monday that the closure remained in force. A State Department spokesman, Fred Lash, said reopening would be assessed day to day, based on the perceived threat to U.S. personnel. The Foreign Office in London said the British were also reviewing the situation.

More Western embassies took steps of their own in the face of the threats, though they stopped short of completely shutting down. The French and Czech embassies were closed to the public, their governments said, warning citizens to avoid travel to the country. Spain’s embassy in San’a restricted access to the public, and the German Foreign Ministry said that at its embassy “the number of visitors was restricted due to increased security measures.”

In Monday’s clashes, security forces attacked a group of al Qaeda militants including Nazeeh al-Hanaq, a senior figure on Yemen’s most-wanted list, as they moved through the mountainous area of Arhab on Monday, security officials said.

Al-Hanaq escaped, but two fighters with him were killed in the battle, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The officials said Monday’s raid was not connected to the threats that prompted the embassy closures.

Yemen has carried out a string of raids on al Qaeda hide-outs in the past month, part of an intensified effort — backed by the United States — to stamp out the terror group’s growing presence in this impoverished, fragmented nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

President Obama says al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen was behind the failed attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner heading to Detroit on Christmas. The United States and Britain have dramatically ramped up counterterrorism aid to San’a, including helping train and fund special units to combat the group.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Washington on Monday that internal unrest and a surge in al Qaeda activity in Yemen pose a “global” threat that is being met by U.S. support for the Yemeni government’s efforts to fight extremists.

“Obviously, we see global implications from the war in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by al Qaeda in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region,” she told reporters at a State Department press conference with visiting Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim Jabr al-Thani.

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