Yemeni officials were quoted as saying they are releasing about 170 detainees*** with suspected ties to al-Qaida, two weeks after al-Qaida said it would use Yemen as its base of operations for the Arabian peninsula.
One Yemeni official, who asked to remain anonymous, told the French Press Agency that "directives have been issued to us to free 176 people held for their links to the al-Qaida network or to activities of the network." The same official also said no individual actually convicted of terrorism charges would be released unless and until their sentences were completed.
Hala Mustafa, a Cairo-based expert on terrorism and fundamentalism says that she thinks that the Yemeni government is resorting to releasing prisoners to avoid any future attacks on its soil, due to the strength of al-Qaida inside the country.
"I think that maybe the Yemeni government resorted to this, in order to prevent any attack on the country," said Mustafa. "I think there are many people from Yemen who joined al-Qaida a long time ago, and Yemen itself is a tribal society and it is very easy for al-Qaida to use this country as a base of attack, or they could make some traditional coalition between the tribes themselves, so I think the Yemen society is very vulnerable."
Reports say that the men involved in the release have signed pledges not to resort to terrorism, a tactic that Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh has previously vowed to use. Tribal leaders are also being asked to guarantee those released maintain good behavior.
Hala Mustafa suggests that President Abdallah Saleh has a multi-pronged approach to keeping the peace with Islamic militants and fundamentalists inside his country, including dialogue with them. This includes his recent initiative to talk with other militants and radicals in the region, such as Hamas.
"I think from another point of view, Yemen tried, today, to play a regional role, in particular with the radical groups in the region such as Hamas, and I think this step could have a dual goal, like from one side prevent an attack inside Yemen, and from the other send a message to the radical groups such as Hamas, today, in order to play a role in containing Hamas."
Last month, Saudi al-Qaida fugitives in Yemen issued a video on the internet to announce that they had joined forces with their Yemeni associates to form a single al-Qaida group for the Arabian peninsula.
Saudi Arabia issued a list of 85 wanted al-Qaida suspects, last week, and experts believe that many probably found refuge with sympathetic tribes inside Yemen.
*** Update 10 Feb 2009:
Yemen's government has denied reports that it released a large group of al-Qaida suspects from prison last week.
The Yemeni embassy in Washington issued a statement Tuesday saying Yemen freed 108 prisoners who are not affiliated with al-Qaida in any way. It says the released detainees had been put on trial for violating Yemeni laws and most had served their sentences.
Yemeni security officials who asked not to be identified were quoted Sunday saying that authorities were releasing about 170 suspects linked to al-Qaida after the detainees signed commitments to good behavior.
The United States has expressed concern about past releases of suspected al-Qaida members in Yemen. Al-Qaida's Yemeni branch claimed responsibility for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa last September that killed 13 Yemenis. Six attackers also were killed.