Yemeni soldiers gather near the airport in Sana, the Yemeni capital. The… (Yahya Arhab / EPA )
Reporting from Beirut — Yemeni officials on Sunday dismissed the threat posed by Al Qaeda in their country as "exaggerated" and downplayed the possibility of cooperating closely with the United States in fighting Islamic militants, even as the U.S. and Britain temporarily closed their diplomatic outposts in Yemen because of unspecified Al Qaeda threats.
The statements by Yemen's foreign minister, chief of national security and Interior Ministry came a day after the region's top American military commander vowed to step up U.S. military support for the beleaguered Arabian Peninsula nation.
Analysts said the Yemeni statements reflected domestic political concerns about President Ali Abdullah Saleh appearing weak and beholden to the West as he faces numerous political challenges.
The group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the failed attempt at bombing a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day. The alleged attacker's claim that he was tutored in Yemen set off alarm bells in Western capitals about the relatively lawless nation of 23 million, which is also facing an insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south.
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus visited Yemen on Saturday and vowed to give Saleh increased aid to fight Al Qaeda. His promise was echoed by President Obama, who said the United States would step up intelligence-sharing and training of Yemeni forces and perhaps carry out joint attacks against militants in the region.
But Yemeni officials Sunday appeared to rebuff any close cooperation with the West. Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi told a government-run newspaper that his country welcomed intelligence-sharing but had made no commitment to conducting anti-terrorism operations in conjunction with the West.
"Yemen has its own short-term and long-term schemes to tackle terrorists anywhere in the republic that only call for intelligence and information coordination with other countries," he told the daily newspaper Politics, the official Saba news agency reported.
A statement posted to the U.S. Embassy website cited "ongoing threats by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack American interests in Yemen." The British Foreign Office confirmed that its embassy had been closed for security reasons and said discussions would be held today on when to reopen the facility.
Both diplomatic missions in Sana, the Yemeni capital, normally are open Saturday through Wednesday.
The U.S. Embassy has been the site of attacks in the past. At least 16 people died there in a Sept. 17, 2008, car bomb attack that was claimed by Al Qaeda. Three mortar rounds missed the embassy and crashed into a nearby high school for girls in March 2008, killing a security guard. Police and alleged Al Qaeda militants exchanged small-arms fire near the embassy a year ago.
On Sunday, Obama's top counter-terrorism advisor said the U.S. had evidence of a viable threat against the embassy, which led to the decision to close it.
"There are indications that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is targeting our embassy and targeting our personnel," John Brennan said on "Fox News Sunday," adding: "We're not going to take any chances with the lives of our diplomats and others who are at that embassy."
Asked whether Americans in the country are safe, Brennan said, "I think until the Yemeni government gets on top of the situation with Al Qaeda, there is a risk of attacks. A number of tourists have been, in fact, kidnapped. A number of tourists have been killed."
But Yemen's Interior Ministry posted a message to its website Sunday boasting that Al Qaeda militants were "under surveillance around the clock."
And Saleh's national security chief, Ali Anisi, said Sunday that Al Qaeda's presence in Yemen was "exaggerated" and touted the success of his nation's forces in stemming terrorism, according to an account of his comments reported by Saba news agency.
He reportedly insisted that Yemen was not a haven for Al Qaeda and pointed to "preemptive operations against militants which thwarted planned attacks on vital domestic and foreign interests in the country."
According to Saba, he said that only 40% of the five dozen attempted terrorist attacks in the country since 1992 had succeeded.
Analysts say the increased focus on Yemen's security situation creates a dilemma for Saleh, who is worried about appearing to cede sovereignty to the Americans when he is being politically assailed from all segments of the population.
"It's about control," said Abdullah Faqih, a professor of political science at Sana University. "The international actors need to assure the Yemeni government about its control. They don't want to give concessions" to their rivals in the north or south.