x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Yemen military's invite to Al Qaeda for talks could anger western allies

A government committee has asked militants to lay down arms and participate in elections to replace the nation's outgoing president.

SANAA // The highest military authority in Yemen has officially invited Al Qaeda militants for dialogue in an effort to end their control of the Abyan province.

Ali Saeed Obaid, the spokesperson of the Yemen Military Committee, which was formed as part of a power transfer deal in November, told The National that Yemen's new leadership is willing to seek solutions with Al Qaeda fighters and the militants fighting with them.

The committee, chaired by Vice President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, is responsible for rebuilding the Yemeni military and is looking at all options to end national bloodshed.

Mr Obaid said the offer of dialogue would be in exchange for the militants laying down arms and participating in the democratic process.

"We are offering Al Qaeda members a chance to be involved in the changes that are taking place in Yemen today," he said. "We open our hands to them and ask them to lay [down] arms and reject the use of force."

In return, Mr Obaid said that Al Qaeda fighters must hand over all territories under its control to the military and evacuate all government posts.

The move, considered the first of its kind in the country's fight against the militants, will likely anger Western powers. Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula has been blamed for a number of attempted attacks on the United States.

Yemen is undergoing a historical transfer of power, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a long-time US ally, will step down after more than 33 years of rule.

The committee admits that Al Qaeda is in control of areas of Abyan and Shabwa provinces. Islamist militants seized control of Abyan last May after government forces evacuated nearly all of its bases and stations there.

The province was announced an Islamic emirate a week later, resulting in hundreds of fighters joining the AQAP lines.

Since then, hundreds of troops have been killed in daily clashes.

"We are killing one another, and in the end Yemen as a nation loses. Let's try giving other options a chance to succeed," Mr Obaid added.

There has not yet been any response from Al Qaeda, according to the military committee.

A senior defence ministry official told The National that negotiations are taking place between the government and Al Qaeda fighters in Abyan. The official said that the goal of the talks is to ease the tension in the province and bridge the gap of differences.

"Yemen can't take anymore destruction. If this is not solved soon, clashes will then spread to major cities throughout the country," the official said.

Last month, a committee formed by Mr Hadi, who is the only candidate in an election later this month to replace Mr Saleh, convinced Al Qaeda fighters in Radda, Al Baitha province, of evacuating the area two weeks after they took over.

The government now fears that clashes could soon erupt in major cities if Al Qaeda is not dealt with. Attacks during the last year have spread to nine provinces across the country, the military committee confirmed.

Despite the prospect of talks, government officials told The National last week that Yemen would by relying increasingly on US drone strikes to target Islamist militants, who they fear could try to take further territory in the run-up to the election.

Experts are hoping however that Mr Hadi can use his ancestral links to Abyan to convince the fighters there to negotiate.

"Hadi is wise and knows that a continuation of war in Abyan is not in favour of the country. Negotiating with Al Qaeda is not a weakness but a signal that all should work in favour of Yemen," said Abdul Salam Mohammed, director of the Sanaa based Abaad Strategic Center.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae