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US lends firepower to Yemen fight

GlobalPost witnesses a training session in which American commandos help Yemenis to combat Al Qaeda.

A member of Yemen's anti-terrorism fires a weapon installed on a Hummer vehicle during a training exercise near the Yemeni capital Sanaa, Jan. 16, 2010. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni policemen sprinted up a rocky dirt road, firing AK-47s, lobbing grenades and detonating explosives at a cinderblock house, a supposed Al Qaeda hideout.

The scenario was fake, but the firepower very real, as U.S. and U.K. military trainers put local counterterrorism forces through their paces northeast of the capital one morning recently.

The 200-person counterterrorism police force is trained daily by the foreign commandos, according to a Yemeni soldier who addressed a small crowd of journalists invited to watch the training.

U.S. and U.K. military personnel were not present, since they’re not allowed to be seen or photographed by the press to avoid drawing attention to their presence on the ground in Yemen, the Yemeni soldier said. His voice was muffled by a black nylon facemask. For his own safety, he said he did not want his identity revealed. He would not give his name or allow himself to be recorded on video.

The presence of Western military personnel in Yemen is “sensitive,” he said, gesturing with an unlit cigarette.

Behind-the-scenes U.S. military involvement in Yemen is not new, but it has been the focus of a heated and virulent debate in Yemen since government forces last month renewed their fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a local affiliate of the international terrorist group. The group claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

U.S. special forces have been training Yemen’s 200-strong counterterrorism police unit on the ground since 2002, when Yemen came under the scrutiny of U.S. and its allies in the newly declared “War on Terror.” It is one of three elite units trained by U.S. and U.K. special forces.

American officials have said that the U.S. provides training, intelligence and “firepower” to the Yemeni government, but does not participate in combat missions. President Barack Obama said earlier this month that the U.S. “has no intention” of becoming directly militarily involved in Yemen.

Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad Alimi said the U.S. has not been involved militarily in recent strikes against alleged Al Qaeda members.

“The operations that have been taken ... are 100 percent Yemeni forces,” he said at a press conference earlier this month. “The Yemeni security apparatus has taken support, information and technology that are not available here, and that’s mostly from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries.”

He called the U.S. a “valuable and important ally” in the fight against terrorism, but ruled out the possibility that there would be U.S. boots on the ground in Yemen.

In an attack last week, Yemeni security forces allegedly killed five suspected Al Qaeda members, including high-ranking commander Qasim Raymi, while they were traveling in moving vehicles, according to a government news agency.