'Friends of Yemen' group urges economic, social, political reforms to stabilize country

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Nations concerned about the growing strength of al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists in Yemen called Friday for economic, social and political reforms to stabilize the country.

The so-called Friends of Yemen group, which met on the edge of the U.N. General Assembly, called for creation of a development fund for Yemen and better coordination of foreign aid. A key aim will be supporting the recently adopted International Monetary Fund program to restructure Yemen's economy, it said in a communique.

The ministers also backed the opening of an office of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Yemen capital San'a, saying it would "help all donors to plan, coordinate and deliver assistance to Yemen more efficiently." The GCC groups most of Yemen's neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The terror threat from Yemen has escalated in the past year, with estimates that some 300 al-Qaida members or cells are operating there. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, is believed to have been behind the failed terrorist attempt on Christmas Day to take down a Detroit-bound passenger jet.

Alan Duncan, Britain's minister of state for international development, told reporters after the meeting that Yemen-based terrorism was a growing concern.

"If you're looking at a fragmented and weak government with al-Qaida presence inside the country, this is a very potent cocktail for danger," Duncan said.

While a number of countries, including the United States and Britain, are providing security assistance, the "friends" meeting of ministers focused on development aid, he said.

"The focus today was primarily on the economic, social and governmental improvements we need to see," Duncan said.

He said that the ministers want to see donors better coordinate their aid to Yemen. He noted that some $3 billion pledged at a 2006 donors' conference has not yet been spent in Yemen "because the country has not been able to snow the capacity to use the funds."

William J. Burns, undersecretary for political affairs at U.S. State Department who attended the meeting, said there was "strong cohesion" among the "friends" countries. He cited "a real sense of urgency in providing assistance, both in the sense of meeting security needs but also in terms of long-term development needs."

In addition to the United States, Britian and Yemen, countries that sent ministers were the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. There also were representatives from the European Union, Arab League and GCC.

Duncan said the session in New York was the second ministerial-level meeting of the "friends," following January's meeting in London, and that a third was to be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, probably next February.

Nearby, a group of about 50 people staged a protest, contending that the current regime in Yemen could not be a reliable partner in countering extremism.

And several groups, including the International Federation for Human Rights, said in an open letter to the ministers that the government in Yemen was violating human rights and using the war on terror as a cover to suppress opposition politicians.