Paying the price

RECENT EVENTS have cost Yemen dearly. Tourism - which brought in $200 million last year - is down 80%. Yemenia, the national airline, has cut its European flights by 75% and is facing losses of $8 million by March as a result. One recent flight from London carried only four passengers.

The British Foreign Office now advises firmly against travel to Yemen. The British Council has closed its centres in Sana'a and Aden, and the American troops who were helping with mine clearance have quietly vanished.

All this will be welcome news for Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London-based cleric, and Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, commander of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, who have been seeking to frighten foreigners away from Yemen.

Abu Hamza's 17-year-old son, Mustapha Kamil, was arrested in Abyan on January 27, along with two Britons from Birmingham, an Algerian, and two members of the Islamic Army who were wanted in connection with the kidnapping of 16 western tourists on December 28.

The boy had gone into hiding after hearing that five other Britons and a British-based Algerian with a false French passport had been arrested in Aden on December 24 for allegedly plotting a bombing campaign.

According to his "confession", published in the Yemeni press, the boy was encouraged by his father to espouse jihad and went to Yemen (with £3,000 in his pocket) to join the Islamic Army, which he found rather unwelcoming. Abu al-Hassan is said to have warned him: "Jihad is a difficult path, covered with thorns and blood" - though apparently he relented and let the boy spend three days learning to use a Kalashnikov, but not other weapons.

So far, the boy has not been charged with any serious crime, although he is alleged to have spent time with some of the other arrested Britons in Aden and Sana'a.

In Aden, where the six "bomb plot" suspects are on trial, one of the defence lawyers, Badr Basunaid, last week boycotted the proceedings after refusing to allow his bag to be searched on the way in. A British lawyer, Rashad Yaqoob, was asked by the judge to leave because he was not recognised by the court.

However, supporters of the six were cheered by the discovery that explosives allegedly found in a car did not carry fingerprints linking them to the accused. It is thought the defendants will claim that the explosives were planted by police.

Although requests for an independent medical examination have been turned down, a British pathologist, Chris Milroy, has described the men's torture claims as "very persuasive".

A strange twist to the case was the revelation that two of the defendants (including Abu Hamza's stepson), far from being religious extremists, were not even practising Muslims. Abu Hamza confirmed that he had failed to interest his stepson in religion.

Meanwhile Abu al-Hassan, who led the kidnapping of 16 tourists in the hope of exchanging them for the arrested Britons, is on trial in Zinjibar with two of his associates. Last week he ridiculed the judge and demanded to be tried in an Islamic court. He said: "We fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya and we will continue our struggle until the establishment of an Islamic state in Yemen."

Whatever the Aden Six were doing or planning, the Yemeni authorities regard Abu Hamza and Abu al-Hassan very seriously. Besides issuing threats to foreigners in Yemen, both have called for the overthrow of the government at a time of severe economic pressure and increased security problems.

Because of lower oil prices, Yemen's oil export revenue last year was down almost 60% on 1997. The pipeline on which this declining revenue largely depends has also been attacked by local tribes more than 20 times since July.

A high-level Yemeni source last week gave details of an attempt to assassinate President Ali Abdullah Salih. The incident, in al-Dali' on November 19, was briefly reported at the time as an explosion 400 metres from the president's motorcade. According to the source, four local men disguised in military uniforms, tried to attack the motorcade with an artillery gun from a hilltop, but their equipment failed. An intelligence report later said the attack was planned by Mowj, the exiled opposition group which is based in London. Mowj, however, has consistently dissociated itself from violence.

So far this year, 11 foreigners have been kidnapped by northern tribes, though none of them have come to any harm. The last remaining hostages - two Germans - were released safely on February 7.