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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT

U.S. Praises, Criticizes Yemen on Terrorism

November 28, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration sent mixed messages Tuesday on Yemen's role in the war on terrorism, praising its cooperation since Sept. 11 while pointing out its past hospitality to an Al Qaeda cell.

As the war in Afghanistan appears to be entering a new phase, Yemen, identified as a past haven for terrorists, is among several such countries drawing new scrutiny.

President Bush, who says the United States will not let up in its campaign to end the operations of global terrorists, met during the afternoon with Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It was from Yemen that two suicide bombers rammed a skiff packed with explosives into the side of the U.S. destroyer Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, setting off a blast that killed 17 sailors.

Osama bin Laden, identified by U.S. officials as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, is suspected of being behind the attack on the Cole.

Traveling Tuesday to the Tampa, Fla., headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked whether the anti-terror campaign would proceed to Somalia, another suspect nation, and Yemen.

"Somalia has been a place that has harbored Al Qaeda and, to my knowledge, still is. Yemen has been identified in the past as a country that has an Al Qaeda cell at the minimum," Rumsfeld said.

At the same time, however, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer went out of his way to put Yemen in a more positive light.

Asked whether there was a direct tie between the attack on the Cole and the hijackings Sept. 11, Fleischer said, "There has been a helpful new energy from Yemen, in terms of cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism."

Since the hijackings, Yemen has deported hundreds of former guerrillas who had fought in Afghanistan and then settled in Yemen. Officials in Yemen said their goal was to dispatch the visitors to their countries of origin, among them Algeria, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Fleischer said Bush was particularly pleased with Yemen's conduct during the investigation of the Cole bombing. The country has arrested nine men suspected of having helped bomb the 505-foot ship.

"The government was going to do a trial. The United States asked that a trial not take place so additional evidence could be gathered. Yemen has agreed to do that," Fleischer said.

Saleh said after the Oval Office meeting that he and Bush discussed the Cole attacks, the Sept. 11 hijackings, the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania--also blamed on Bin Laden--and an explosion last month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in which an American was one of two people killed.

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Times staff writer John Hendren contributed to this report.

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