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President Saleh: Hunting al-Qaida ‘Relentless’ in Yemen

March 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In a series of reports from Yemen, Margaret Warner talks to the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, about security threats, government corruption and relations with the U.S.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Margaret Warner continues her reports from Yemen — today, her interview with Yemen’s president.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. President, thank you for having us.

How do you think the fight against al-Qaida is going, your fight? Are you winning?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH, president of Yemen (through translator): We are considering our fight against the elements of al-Qaida here in Yemen because of their terrorist actions either against the U.S. interests or against the Yemen interests.

We are hunting them down. And we are doing this in a relentless way. We are not going to retreat, never. And we will continue our fight against them, unless they announce their repentance or stop or abandon or relinquish completely the acts of terrorism and acts of violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Washington is very pleased that you have stepped up your fight against al-Qaida here on the security side. What prompted you to do that?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): Actually, our actions against al-Qaida is not new. We have been doing this since long time ago.

But we doubled our actions recently, because the pressure on us, on the security apparatuses and authorities, were reduced after the war in Saada has come to a halt in the north of this country. We were busy completely with the war in Saada. But our actions against al-Qaida are continuing. And, of course, the halt of the war in Saada will increase our efforts against al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Washington has been concerned that, in the past, your commitment has been episodic, intense at times, then less so. Are you saying it’s different now? You really are going to stick with this?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): The position to follow up and to hunt down the elements of al-Qaida is a position taken in the past, in the present and in the future. We are going to follow up these elements until they surrender or demolish them completely, because they caused very severe acts of violence against the tourists and the Yemeni authorities.

Also, they damaged the security and the stability, the economy of Yemen. So, our political position is the same in the past, the present and in the future. We are not going to retreat.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, recently, however, you did also offer to talk to al-Qaida or negotiate with al-Qaida. What did you mean by that? What was your intention there?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): Actually, we are — we have not closed the door of dialogue, but, at the same time, we are not seeking for dialogue with al-Qaida. But, if the elements of al-Qaida came to us, they want to surrender, of course, there will be no problem.

MARGARET WARNER: But that isn’t negotiation.

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): If they come to us surrendering or handing themselves over — even the United States of America is negotiating with some elements in Afghanistan with Taliban. If they are going to revert to peace, there is no reason to stop dialogue with them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the relationship with the United States, there’s been doubling of military aid just in the past year. I think it’s up 10-fold since 2008. Are you getting what you need from the U.S.?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): The U.S. assistance to Yemen and aid are symbolic. They focus on the exchange of information, in the field of training, providing some equipment, military equipment, and medium equipment to the Yemeni military at the cost of about 150 million U.S. dollars.

This is a good thing, a good cooperation, but, of course, such assistance and aid does not resolve the economic problem in Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: You had an interview Friday night with Al-Arabiya, Arabic satellite television, where you made a point of saying there are no U.S. troops here in Yemen. Why? Why was that important to say?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): This is normal, because there are no U.S. troops on Yemeni territories, neither offshore or onshore. There are some elements who are going — making training for Yemeni personnel.

I wanted to confirm to the world, to the Yemeni people that there was no U.S. troops. At the same time, we have no agreement, we have no treaty with the U.S. on the presence of U.S. troops in Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: What would be the consequence if the Yemeni people thought there were U.S. troops either here or on the way?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): Actually, there’s no reason that U.S. troops be in Yemen. And we don’t have any intentions here in Yemen — and we believe the same with the U.S. They don’t have any intention to have their troops here in Yemen, because there is no justification for their presence here in Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some of these military strikes that you have been able to target at al-Qaida hideouts, militant figures, have those been all Yemeni airstrikes, or have there also been American airstrikes?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): There is a cooperation in the field of information exchange. These strikes are almost — most of them are Yemeni.

MARGARET WARNER: So, most of the airstrikes, but not all of them, have been done by Yemeni forces?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): I would say, most of the strikes are Yemeni, because all what I’m aware of is the Yemeni strikes that we launched.

MARGARET WARNER: As you know, there is great concern about the degree of corruption here. And that’s one reason why the aid that was agreed to several years ago by the international community, most of it never came here.

What are you doing about that perception and, at least in the view of most international observers, the reality that a lot of money that is given here in assistance is not spent for the purposes it was intended, and does go to benefit the private interests of people in the government and inner circle?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): These are mere lies. This information are baseless, and it is not true. It’s within the framework of a campaign of lies against Yemen, unfair campaign against Yemen, against the security and the stability and democracy of Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see the United States? Is it an adviser now? Is it a partner? What word would you use?

ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (through translator): We look at it on two tracks. The U.S. is a partner in combating terrorism. And we are satisfied for the cooperation and coordination having with them. At the same time, we value the consultations that the U.S. is providing Yemen with in the fields of development, in the field of politics. And we welcome such consultations.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. President, thank you very much.