WASHINGTON – A U.S. special forces advance team is on the ground in Yemen while as many as 200 U.S. special forces soldiers are in nearby Oman preparing to deploy to Yemen as soon as the final order is issued, Fox News has learned.
Pentagon officials are not releasing the details of the final military package that will go into Yemen, but military sources tell Fox News that 500 troops will be in Yemen by the end of the month.
The U.S. troops will train, advise and accompany Yemeni troops as they hunt down Al Qaeda fighters believed to be hiding in Yemen. The final order is scheduled to be completed before the end of this week.
A government official in Yemen had earlier said U.S. forces would enter Yemen at different times in groups of 20 to 30 people, which would remain for 15 to 20 days.
President Bush has already publicly approved a plan to send U.S. troops to Yemen to help the country's military fight terrorism.
The U.S. has been trying to enlist Yemen's cooperation in the fight against terrorism since 17 American sailors were killed in an October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. The United States blames Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network for that attack.
It is also believed that many Al Qaeda members have called Yemen, a small country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula, home over the years. Bin Laden's father was born there.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House's National Security Council allowed Gen. Tommy Franks to work out the details with Yemen. As head of the U.S. Central Command, Franks is responsible for U.S. military operations in that part of the world.
The official said small amounts of military equipment, likely to be radios for field communication, probably would be provided along with the training.
On Feb. 11, on a visit to Yemen, Franks told reporters the United States did not expect to deploy combat troops in Yemen but probably would train Yemen's military in counterterror tactics.
During that visit, Franks said President Ali Abdullah Saleh was interested in military training and help to create a coast guard to help the Yemenis protect their 1,500-mile coastline.
The extension of the U.S. military presence into Yemen is the latest evidence that the Bush administration is expanding the reach of the war on terror. The American military has already been concentrating on the former Soviet republic of Georgia and the Philippines, setting plans in motion to train locals in finding and fighting terrorists.
As in the southern Philippines, American troops in Yemen will not directly engage in combat missions but will go with the local fighters and return fire if fired upon.
The Georgia mission is slightly different. U.S. troops there are only training and advising the Georgian troops but are not accompanying those forces into battle.
The Georgian president said Friday that only the U.S. can help uproot militants there, while Russian leader Vladimir Putin insisted he is not worried by plans to deploy U.S. troops in his country.
The two presidents spoke at a regional summit amid complaints by some Russian officials over the U.S. plan to send up to 200 troops to Georgia to train security forces, which has brought speculation that it could become the next front in the anti-terror war.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze defended his decision to work with Washington rather than Moscow, which traditionally sees the region as its sphere of influence.
"It has been no secret that the United States helped us form a border guard force. Without their help we would not have done it," Shevardnadze said in a speech to the leaders of 11 former Soviet republics, gathered in Kazakhstan.
"Now they seriously intend to create an anti-terrorist group. No other country was capable of doing that," he said.
Putin said the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia would be "no tragedy" for Russia.
"If this is possible in Central Asia, why not in Georgia?" Putin said, according to Interfax news agency.
Putin has followed a policy of cooperation with the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign and has raised no objection to the U.S. military's operations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
But many Russian officials warned that U.S. troops in Georgia would be going too far. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov suggested in a conversation with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday that the U.S. troops would only aggravate an already delicate situation.
The U.S. troops are to train and equip security forces to fight militants operating in the Pankisi Gorge region. U.S. officials say the militants may be linked to Al Qaeda.
The region borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, and Moscow says the rebels it is fighting there use the Pankisi area as a refuge. Georgia, eager to shed Russian influence and reach out to the West, refused Russian offers to help crack down on rebels in the Pankisi.
Shevardnadze dismissed the "uproar" in Russia, and said, "We will cooperate with Russia and other countries."
Shevardnadze also admitted in a statement released late Thursday that his country could crumble. Two Georgian regions bordering on Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have already declared independence, although no country recognizes their bid.
The United States recognizes that without a strong military, a country's "sovereignty could become a fiction. Therefore they made a decision to activate cooperation in the military sphere," Shevardnadze said.
U.S. and Georgian officials said American forces would not be involved in combating rebels in the Pankisi Gorge. The U.S. troops would train four battalions, each comprising about 300 servicemen, said a western official in Moscow.
A group of U.S. military instructors will arrive in Georgia in mid-March as part of an ongoing military cooperation agreement, Defense Ministry spokesman Miryan Kiknadze said Friday.
The U.S. forces would train infantry and border guard units over a period of up to 12 months and provide light weapons, vehicles and communications equipment, said the western official in Moscow, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials hope to start training headquarters units, which are responsible for planning, overseeing and executing military operations, by mid-March, the official said.
Fox News' Andrew Hard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.