Building trust on a minefield

A US project to clear Yemen's minefields opens the door to improved relations between the two.

The farms around Yemen's southern port of Aden seem an unlikely venue for building a strategic friendship. But for the United States, helping Yemen tackle the problem of its minefields is proving to be a low-profile way of removing barriers.

Since 1997, a handful of US military officials have trained 270 Yemeni soldiers to remove land mines. The mines have been planted over many years of insurrections, border disputes, and civil wars.

"De-mining has probably done more for public diplomacy than anything else," says an American official in the capital, Sana. "It has slowly convinced a lot of people that we are not hostile."

American strategists - whose Mideast priorities have been protecting the oil reserves of Persian Gulf allies - have paid little attention to Yemen for decades. But they have begun to take notice of Yemen's location at the choke point of the Red Sea - and its stated aim of controlling radical Islamic elements.

"We've stopped ignoring Yemen," says the American official. "We colored in Yemen on the map and made it part of the strategic picture."

Prior to unification with the military regime of North Yemen in 1990, socialist South Yemen was a Soviet client state. The new nation, with a seat then on the United Nations Security Council, experienced US contempt almost immediately for refusing to condemn Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But nearly a decade later, priorities are changing. The US military has made a refueling deal with Yemen. And a small number of US troops - including Special Forces units and Navy SEALS - have taken part in limited "joint" exercises.

"The numbers are small, but the symbol is there," says a French analyst in Sana.

But the popular de-mining campaign is at the forefront of efforts by both the US and Yemen, Western diplomats say, to "cultivate each other."

Fields of green sprout from the sandy soil near Aden, as a group of Yemeni de-miners drives to a testing area in their US-supplied, fire-engine-red four-wheel-drives. The carpet of green gives way to dunes, and the road turns into a camel track. "Now, why do you think there is no farming here?" asks Terry Casteel, a US Central Command de-mining specialist, as the de-miners begin to off-load to test a new metal detector.

The US military trained the first class in what is officially called "humanitarian de-mining." In the second class, it split instruction duties with Yemenis, and then simply observed the third class as the freshly trained Yemeni instructors put new recruits through their paces.

"The philosophy is to teach them how to fish, not catch the fish for them," says Mr. Casteel. US assistance helped create a refurbished de-mining academy out of a disused barracks. Trained troops are given special uniforms and hats.

The Americans have so far spent $5 million to pay for everything from English classes to barbed wire. The Japanese government, among other donors, has contributed $500,000 for mine-awareness campaigns.

"This program has been soup to nuts, but it has gotten a lot of people's attention," says Michael Eyre, a US Army Major and de-mining officer with Centcom. "We are the best de-mining shop around."

The US support is important, because they have made it sustainable," says Yemeni Col. Saleh Abdullah Omar, the head of the academy. "Without the Americans, this would have been impossible."

The de-miners first began field work in June, and the results in one strip, 50 yards wide by 1-1/2 miles long, is telling. The site had supposedly been de-mined twice in the past, but the US-trained teams found five antitank mines.

But not everyone in Yemen has welcomed the US presence. This project was delayed for two months last year after what sources familiar with the circumstances say were specific threats to the US de-mining units.

Communications intercepts apparently overheard between operatives of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile accused by the US of bombing two US Embassies in Africa in 1998, caused the US team to decamp from public accommodation to a presidential compound. Many in this Islamic nation are broadly sympathetic toward the ideology of Mr. Bin Laden, who considers US military presence in Saudi Arabia an "occupation" of Islamic holy sites.

But with an average estimated daily income of less than $1 a day for average Yemenis, the leadership of Yemen's transitional democracy is eager to create links to the US. The same is true for many Yemenis in the south, who after decades of British colonial rule, and then the Soviet presence, welcome the change.

"Southerners believe that the Soviet Union and the former socialist bloc are behind all their miseries, so they want to go to the West," says Hisham Mohamed Bashraheel, the editor of Al-Ayyam, Yemen's largest-selling independent newspaper.

"It is also the growing belief among Arabs of global thinking: let the Palestinians handle their problems the way they want, and let the Saudis do the same [with the American presence]," Mr. Bashraheel says.

"before we were Arab nationalists, but I don't think we are now," Bashraheel adds. "People are looking after their own interests, and this [de-mining] has made people happy."

Besides clearing minefields, the US presence has brought other, unexpected dividends for locals. US military explosives experts last spring helped clear the Aden harbor of shipwrecks that hindered traffic. But the job also yielded a large harvest of fish killed by the blasts.

"They distributed all those fish on the docks," recalls Centcom's Casteel. "They were very popular for awhile."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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