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Yemen clamps down on strike by bike jihadis

By Jamal al-Jaberi

SANAA, Friday 15 October 2010 (AFP) - Motorbike taxis have long been a cheap means of transport in poverty-striken Yemen but now the two-wheelers are being banned in parts of the south due to a surge in jihadist attacks launched from them.

In the past six months, 28 suicide attacks by bike-borne militants have killed 15 officials in Abyan alone, the southern province that has become an Al-Qaeda bastion. Security officials say the Islamists have carried out similar attacks in other provinces.

Motorbike hit-and-run shootings are also on the rise. On Sunday night two men on a motorbike gunned down an officer in Abyan's capital Zinjibar who featured on an Al-Qaeda hit list of policemen, while last week another mounted gunman shot dead a soldier in neighbouring Daleh province.

As a result, the authorities have ordered some 2,000 motorbikes off the streets of Abyan and have enforced restrictions on their use in other areas.

"Most attacks against officers, soldiers, and security headquarters in Abyan were carried out by people on motorbikes," Deputy Governor Ahmed Nasser Jarfoush told AFP.

But death by motorbike does not always involve militants.

The government also hopes the clampdown will reduce the number of traffic accidents involving motorcyclists, responsible for between 30 and 40 deaths country-wide every month, official figures show.

Banning bikes "only partly solves the problem," said Ghassan al-Sheikh, a senior official in Zinjibar, adding that the government should "compensate motorbike owners and find them suitable job opportunities."

Motorbike taxi owners are generally not registered as such, simply plying their trade on an informal basis in a country where unemployment officially stands at 40 percent although independent estimates put the figure as high as 54 percent.

More than 100,000 Yemenis have officially registered motorbikes, most of them make a living from the vehicles, and there many others that are not registered.

"If cars were used to carry out those attacks, would the government ban cars as well?" asked Sheikh.

In the rest of Yemen, the government has been slightly more lenient, banning bikes from the roads between 8:00 pm and 6:00 am and forcing owners to fit registration plates, a measure which was not required until this year.

But those measures have also prompted protests by owners, many of whom feed their families on the modest incomes they earn with their two-wheelers.

"The authorities have been bothering us ever since motorbikes were used by some people to undermine security and target officials, especially in the south," said Mohammed Nasr.

The 24-year-old, who lives in Taez, 230 kilometres (140 miles) southwest of Sanaa, uses his motorbike taxi to support his seven brothers and sisters since their parents' death in 2007.

Nasr, who counts himself lucky if he makes 14 dollars (10 euros) a day, says the police occasionally pull him over because he uses a motorbike.

"Sometimes the police stop me and question me for hours," he said.

According to Hussein Jarad, a 35-year-old government employee in Sanaa, "not only are Al-Qaeda militants committing crimes in the country but they are also causing panic and fear among motorbike users."

Jarad, a father of three, sometimes rents out his motorbike in return for a daily income, despite the risks involved even in doing that.

"If someone you've rented your bike to uses it for a suicide attack, in the end you will be held responsible for their crimes," he said.

Said Obeid al-Jamhi, a Yemeni expert on Al-Qaeda and author of a book on the jihadist network's local branch, sees no point in motorbikes being banned while a blind eye is turned to the proliferation of guns in the country.

Gun ownership has long been a key part of Yemeni culture. The country has an estimated 60 million firearms in private hands, roughly three for every resident.

"Reality proves that terrorism has remained and is on the rise despite the ban on motorbikes. But what is more important? Banning the means of transport or the weapons used?" Jamhi asked.

"Yemeni tribes own arsenals that have been used to defy the state and continue to threaten the regime," Jamhi said.

There is an overall lack of security in Yemen, especially in the country's hot spots, and that leaves the coast clear for "terrorists", he told AFP.

In addition to its struggle against the Islamist militants, the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula is battling a sporadic Zaidi Shiite rebellion in the north and growing secessionism in the south.

Soaring joblessness among young Yemenis will only lead "to an increase in terrorism," Jamhi believes.

At a meeting in New York last month of international support group Friends of Yemen, British Minister of State for International Development Minister Alan Duncan warned of "massive dangers" to world security if Yemen becomes a failed state.

MySinchew 2010.10.15

 

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