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Yemeni official: Other conflicts diverted focus from al Qaeda

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Yemen al Qaeda threat
  • NEW: Foreign minister says Yemen fighting Houthi rebels in north, secessionists in south
  • NEW: State Department official says U.S. has kept focus on terrorist threat in Yemen
  • NEW: Secretary of state says U.S. must help "countries that are incubators of extremism"
  • Yemen arrests 3 al Qaeda suspects who fought troops, 4 accused of helping them

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Yemen's foreign minister says his government has not sufficiently focused on al Qaeda because it has turned its attention to insurgencies rocking the northern and southern regions there.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an interview Wednesday that "our fault was that we spared al Qaeda" because of other conflicts -- fighting Houthi rebels in the north and secessionists in the south.

He spoke to Amanpour from Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

Al-Qirbi also said Yemen isn't accepting direct U.S. intervention, despite reports that the United States made military strikes against Yemeni targets late last year, and he said his country's forces can conduct military action against al Qaeda.

He said that the United States has learned from its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq that direct intervention can be self-defeating. But he emphasized that his country has welcomed help from the United States and other nations to bolster its equipment, intelligence, firepower and overall development.

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Al-Qirbi said there are 200 to 300 al Qaeda members in Yemen, but he says events have proved that the country hasn't become the next Afghanistan, a reference to that country being a haven for al Qaeda when it was under Taliban control.

But he said that their activities are "obviously of concern to us" and that unless there is a concerted effort to exchange intelligence, "lapses" will occur like those that led to a failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on a U.S. passenger jet.

Meanwhile, Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department's ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, told Amanpour on Wednesday that the United States has not taken its attention off of Yemen. He said Washington has been focusing on the terrorist threat there since President Obama came into office.

Benjamin said that Yemen is not a failed state, though parts of it clearly are "undergoverned." But "the al Qaeda threat from Yemen is at a peak now," Benjamin said, and the United States is working "more effectively" with Yemeni authorities to curb it.

In a speech Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there needs to be a "new mindset" in the "long-term endeavor" to help develop countries, including places like Yemen. Such work requires patience and "the courage to rethink our strategies if we're falling short," she said.

"We must also be honest that, in some situations, we will invest in places that are strategically critical but where we are not guaranteed success. In countries that are incubators of extremism, like Yemen, or are ravaged by poverty and natural disasters, like Haiti, the odds are long. But the cost of doing nothing is potentially far greater," she said, speaking at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Yemen fertile ground for terror groups

They made their remarks as Yemen's Interior Ministry kept up the heat on al Qaeda militants. Yemeni security forces arrested three al Qaeda suspects Wednesday along with four others believed to be sheltering them, the ministry said.

It was the latest action in what the ministry says is Yemen's fight against terrorism and al Qaeda -- a series of operations officials say resulted in the deaths and arrests of dozens of militants. The action comes after the failed plot to bomb the Northwest Airlines plane December 25 as it approached Detroit, Michigan -- a plot that has been linked to Yemeni extremists.

The arrests occurred in Amran province northwest of the capital, Sanaa, according to a statement published on the ministry's Web site.

The al Qaeda suspects were wounded and on the run after clashes with government troops Monday, when they were thought to be accompanying Mohammed Ahmed al-Haunq, an al Qaeda leader for the area, the ministry said.

Four others accused of helping the suspects were apprehended at a hospital, according to the ministry Web site, which described them as "al-Haunq security and relatives."

Yemen's state-run news agency, SABA, reported Monday that two al Qaeda suspects were killed and two others were injured in clashes with a Yemeni anti-terrorism unit.

The Yemeni government has referred to al-Haunq as the mastermind and leader of the group threatening to attack Western embassies in Yemen.

The United States closed its embassy in Sanaa on Sunday after intelligence suggested that four al Qaeda operatives might have been planning an attack on the compound, a senior Obama administration official said Monday.

The embassy reopened Tuesday, saying Monday's operation had addressed the threatened attack.

The British Embassy in Yemen also cited security concerns when it closed Sunday. It reopened Tuesday, but public services -- including consular and visa services -- remained suspended indefinitely.

Al-Qirbi and British Ambassador to Yemen Tim Torlo held discussions Wednesday, according to SABA. They talked about the arrangements for a conference on the Yemen situation.

On December 25, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear as the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, made its final approach to Detroit. The device failed to fully detonate, instead setting off a fire at the man's seat, and he was restrained by passengers and crew until the plane landed.

The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day plot, and Obama has linked the suspect to that group, which is a combination of al Qaeda networks in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

AbdulMutallab, who faces federal charges of attempting to destroy an aircraft, is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has said that the attempted attack on the airliner was in retaliation for airstrikes against it December 17 and 24. However, Yemen has said that AbdulMutallab purchased his ticket December 16.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen has come under attack numerous times in recent years. In September 2008, 10 people were killed -- among them police and civilians, but no embassy employees -- when insurgents opened fire and set off explosions outside the compound.