Evasive manoeuvres

AMID extraordinary security, US Vice-President Dick Cheney set foot in Yemen last week  and declared: "We have increasingly developed close relations between ourselves and Yemen."

Leaving behind most of his staff and the press corps in the presumed safety of Egypt, Mr Cheney arrived on a military plane which carried out "evasive manoeuvres" as it dipped between the mountains into Sana'a airport.

Once safely on the ground, he ventured no further than the airport buildings, where President Ali Abdullah Salih and others had travelled to meet him. Two hours later, he took to the sky again in another flurry of evasive manoeuvres.

Mr Cheney's trip, the first by a high-ranking American since George Bush senior - then vice-president - visited Yemen in 1986, may not have been strictly necessary but, given the need for security co-operation, omitting Yemen from his 11-country Middle East tour would have aroused negative speculation.

Reports that some 400 American "spies and military personnel" are already in Yemen, helping to track down remnants of al-Qa'eda, appear to be exaggerated. The reality, according to official sources, is that there will be three American teams of "advisers and trainers", each with 20-30 members.

These will be rotated at monthly intervals so, although several hundred people may be involved, no more than 100 are likely to be in Yemen at any given time.

The Yemeni government says it is happy to have their assistance but wants them to stay out of sight in order to avoid stirring up public opinion which is increasingly hostile towards American policies in the region.

On the day Mr Cheney arrived, eight political parties issued a statement condemning his visit and accusing the US of trying to dominate the region militarily and to destabilise its security.

The day after his visit, a 25-year-old Yemeni, variously described as unemployed or a student, threw two grenades - readily obtainable in Yemen - into the grounds of the US embassy in Sana'a. He was arrested and found to have a third grenade in his possession.

Although there are suspicions that he may belong to a militant group, some sources claim he is mentally unstable.

On March 11, a Briton working for a marine company in Hudeidah was shot in the neck by two unidentified men on a motor cycle. The man, David John, is recovering in hospital and, once again, the motives for the attack are unclear.

Meanwhile, the purge of Yemen's education system - intended to root out the causes of religious militancy - shows signs of flagging. The private al-Iman university, run by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, leader of the radical wing of the Islah party, is back in business after a brief closure by the authorities.

About 7,000 people attended celebrations on March 13 to mark the university's ninth anniversary. Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, Yemen's parliamentary speaker, praised its academic achievements while Sheikh Zindani, who is also the university's rector, portrayed the clamp-down on religious extremists as a war against Islam.

Before its temporary closure, al-Iman university had about 800 foreigners among its 6,000 students.

Until the events of September 11, Yemen was a popular place for foreigners to study Islam, and students at the more extreme institutions sometimes moved on into al-Qa'eda or similar organisations.

Since then, the authorities have arrested and expelled large numbers of foreign students. Twelve Malaysian students, aged 15-25, who were arrested last month have now been freed following pressure from the Malaysian government.

The twelve were studying at an unregistered school, Ma'ahad Tahfiz al-Quran in Ta'izz. Six others from the same school evaded arrest and took refuge in the Malaysian embassy.

The crumbling "war on terrorism" in Yemen's educational system is further evidence that Mr Cheney's pilot is not the only expert in evasive manoeuvres.