WASHINGTON — Yemeni authorities have 12 Americans in custody, and the arrests may be linked to a joint U.S.-Yemeni anti-terrorism campaign, a State Department spokesman said Monday.
The spokesman, P.J. Crowley, declined to provide details about the case, except to say the State Department is aware of the arrests and is seeking more information about the individuals being held.
The revelations come as the U.S. government continues to encourage Yemen to move against al-Qaida-linked militants in the country who officials fear may be involved in plots to attack America or other Western interests.
U.S. officials worry that Yemen is becoming the next significant terrorist staging ground and say insurgents — including some from the U.S. —are training in camps in Yemen's vast undergoverned spaces.
Last week, Yemeni security officials said authorities had detained several foreigners, including Americans, Britons and an Australian woman, in connection with an investigation into al-Qaida's increased activity in the country.
Those arrests were made after foreign intelligence agencies provided lists of names of people they wanted to have detained or put under surveillance, according to two Yemeni security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to brief journalists.
It was not immediately clear whether the 12 Americans cited by Crowley were among those reported to have been rounded up last week, but Crowley suggested there may be an anti-terrorism connection.
Asked whether he could confirm a report that the Americans had been picked up in Yemen at the request of the U.S. government, Crowley replied, "We have great cooperation with the government of Yemen. Together, we are doing our best to help Yemen reduce the threat posed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That's a threat to Yemen. It's a threat to the United States. But beyond that, I'm not going to talk about specifics."
Al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen has steadily increased in strength since key leaders escaped from a Yemeni jail in 2006. In January 2009 it got another boost by merging with Saudi al-Qaida militants to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.