SANA, Yemen — Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he is ready to talk to al-Qaida members who renounce violence, suggesting he could show them the same kind of leniency he has granted militants in the past despite U.S. pressure to crack down on the terror group.
Yemen is moving cautiously in the fight against al-Qaida, worried over a potential backlash in a country where anger at the United States and extremism are widespread. Thousands of Yemenis are battle-hardened veterans of past "holy wars" in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq, and though most are not engaged in violence now they preserve a die-hard al-Qaida ideology.
"Any movement against al-Qaida will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime," warned Ali Mohammed Omar, a Yemeni who fought in Afghanistan from 1990-92 and says he met Osama bin Laden twice. If the United States or its allies become directly involved, "the whole (Yemeni) people will become al-Qaida. Instead of 30 or 40 people, it would become millions," he said.
Yemeni forces recently launched their heaviest strikes and raids against al-Qaida in years, and Washington has praised Sana for showing a new determination against al-Qaida's offshoot in the country.
The United States has increased money and training for Yemen's counterterror forces, calling al-Qaida in Yemen a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day.
But Saleh's comments raised the possibility he could continue a policy that has frustrated U.S. officials in the past — releasing al-Qaida militants on promises they will not engage in terrorism again. Several have since broken those promises and are believed to have returned to al-Qaida.
"Dialogue is the best way … even with al-Qaida, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason," Saleh said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV aired late Saturday.
He said Yemen would pursue those who continued violence, but "we are ready to reach an understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism."