SANA, Yemen — Authorities have arrested 15 people, eight of whom are believed to be connected to a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in this capital, Yemeni officials said Tuesday. A senior U.S. official confirmed that there was strong evidence of a threat to the embassy.
The Washington official, who asked not to be named, said it was not clear how an attack would be carried out. But the official said the basis for concern was suspicious movement near the embassy by people who appeared to be gathering information about security and other aspects of the embassy operation.
A Yemeni Interior Ministry official, who asked not to be named, said that within the past week, "the group of eight was observing the activities of U.S. diplomats and had the embassy and surrounding areas under surveillance." Authorities were searching for two other men believed to be involved.
The activity around the embassy prompted a June 9 warning to U.S. visitors in Yemen to take precautions and resulted in the closing of the embassy to the public.
The FBI decided to withdraw its personnel Sunday, concerned that violence might be directed at the Americans. The FBI officials were in Yemen investigating the October attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole.
The Interior Ministry official provided no details about the identities of the eight detained men, whether they were connected to an Islamic group or the exact date of their arrests. Nor would the official say whether the eight had any connection to seven other men whose arrests were reported earlier Tuesday by Yemeni security officials.
The arrests of the seven began about two weeks ago with the detention of four members of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, including an activist who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980s, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Three other members of the group were detained four days ago, the officials said.
The group consists mostly of men who had joined Saudi exile and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden in fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Interior Ministry official said the U.S. Embassy sought permission last week for U.S. investigators to interview the eight arrested men about the embassy threats.
U.S. officials said a security agreement signed with Yemen's government after the Cole bombing gave them the right to speak to the men, according to the ministry official.
But he said the ministry refused the request because the agreement covers only the Cole attack.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine declined to comment on the arrests of the seven members of the Army of Aden-Abyan group.
The Washington Post and the New York Times, citing U.S. officials, first reported the arrest of suspects involved with the embassy plot. ABC and NBC also reported the news. Some of the reports placed the number of arrests at nine, others at 10.
The Post said nine people were arrested after being found with hand grenades, small arms and documents, including a map of the embassy.
The suspects were believed to be planning a suicide bombing of the facility, the New York Times reported. The plan was to kill FBI and U.S. Navy investigators, it said.
In Washington, spokesmen Bill Carter of the FBI and Richard Boucher of the State Department declined to comment on the reports late Monday.
In Jordan, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al Qerbi told the Middle East Broadcasting Center on Tuesday that his government had given Americans all necessary protection.
He said that the U.S. Embassy had informed the Yemeni government that threats had been made against it but that the threats might have come from outside his country.