YEMEN'S president said yesterday that he was willing to strike a deal with al-Qa'ida if militants laid down their weapons, amid warnings that dozens of foreign fighters were streaming into the country.
Ali Abdullah Saleh's offer to negotiate with members of the terror network came as officials said several al-Qa'ida operatives, including Saudis and Egyptians, were travelling from Afghanistan to join fighters in the lawless tribal lands in central and southern Yemen.
Among those said to be in hiding in the area is Anwar al-Awlaki, the influential Yemeni preacher. The US-born imam preached to two of the 9/11 bombers in California and had links to the US army psychiatrist charged with the Fort Hood gun rampage and the Nigerian man who allegedly tried to blow up a Christmas Day flight to Detroit.
Some Yemeni officials believe that Mr al-Awlaki, a member of a powerful clan who claims not to be a direct member of al-Qa'ida, may be willing to enter talks after he leapt from relative obscurity to international infamy as the "bin Laden of the internet".
Authorities claimed that he was among the dead in a pre-Christmas airstrike in the south of the country, but he later spoke to a Yemeni journalist who confirmed that he was still alive.
Mr Saleh told an Arabic television news channel that he was willing to offer al-Qa'ida militants a last chance to put down their weapons and come to an accommodation, even as US special forces instructors put troops through intensive anti-terrorist training.
"If al-Qa'ida lay down their arms, renounce terrorism and return to wisdom, we are prepared to deal with them," the president said. "They are a threat not only to Yemen but also to international peace and security."
Analysts warn that unless authorities get to grips with the growing threat of insurgency, the country risks spiralling into further chaos. (© The Times, London)