Pentagon Prepares to Send Troops to Yemen

March 1, 2002 -- The U.S. military is working with Yemeni officials to hammer out details on a plan to combat terrorism in the Arab state.

Pentagon officials would not confirm details, but ABCNEWS has learned there are plans to send as many as 200 U.S. troops to Yemen to train forces there, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden's father and suspected home to the accused terrorist mastermind's al Qaeda forces.

The troops would train and equip Yemen security forces with small arms and gather intelligence. They would not engage in combat, but act mainly in an advisory role — an arrangement similar to the one taking place in the Philippines against the Muslim separatist Abu Sayyaf, and proposed in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

"Especially since Sept. 11, we've been working with a variety of countries to find out, what are the things we can do together?" said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. "How can we help many of these countries with logistical support with training, with the appropriate levels of equipment so they can better combat terrorism in their own countries?"

Confirming a Wall Street Journal report, a senior Yemeni official told Reuters today that the White House had approved a mission to send hundreds of troops to train and advise forces in the Arab state. It was unclear when the U.S. troops would arrive in Yemen.

"In the framework of cooperation between Yemen and the United States, U.S. forces will arrive gradually to hold training courses," the official said.

A government official in Yemen speaking with The Associated Press did not say when the troops would arrive but said the forces will enter Yemen at different times in groups of 20 to 30 people, who will stay for 15 to 20 days.

Yemen, often seen as a haven for Islamic extremists, has been searching for al Qaeda members in an apparent attempt to cooperate with the U.S.-led war on terror. The USS Cole was in the Yemeni port city of Aden when it was bombed in October 2000.

Hunger Strike Fading

A hunger strike by prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility appeared to be fading as U.S. military officials agreed to allow the detainees to wear turbans during prayers.

The hunger strike was apparently sparked when a turban, made from a bedsheet, was forcibly removed from a praying prisoner on Tuesday. Detainees were only allowed to wear skullcaps or loosely draped towels on their heads.

Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, the commander at Guantanamo Bay, spoke to the detainees for the first time on Thursday night and announced that they can now wear turbans. For security reasons, however, those turbans will be inspected at random.

Officials have been concerned that prisoners could hide weapons inside the turbans.

"These are bad folks and let's not forget that," Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa told a Pentagon briefing today. "We have two goals: humane treatment of detainees and the security of our own people."

The change in policy appears to have placated at least some of the prisoners. Only 73 of the 300 detainees chose not to eat breakfast this morning, down from 107 on Thursday.

Two protesting prisoners were treated for dehydration with intravenous drips, Pentagon officials said.

Marine Maj. Steven Cox said the turban incident may have triggered the strike, but officials who interviewed detainees say the prisoners are also concerned about the uncertainty of their situation.

"The real issue is the natural tension associated with not knowing what the future holds for them," he said. "They don't know what's going to happen to them, when it's going to happen, or where they're going to end up."

Kremlin Anxiety Easing on Georgia Plan

Reports of possibly sending U.S. troops to Yemen come as Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be easing off criticism of a similar plan to put U.S. soldiers in the one-time Soviet republic of Georgia.

"Why should they [the U.S. forces] be in Central Asia and not in Georgia?" Putin said, according to Reuters.

However, he seemed disappointed that it was the United States — and not Georgia — that told Moscow of the plan.

On Thursday, the chairman of the Duma's [parliament] defense committee, Andrey Nikolayev, criticized Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, saying his policies have resulted in the "virtual dissolution of ties" between Russia and Georgia. Nikolayev said the Americans have only "made a first step on their road to expanding their military presence in the Caucasus Mountains region."

But Georgy Arbatov of the reformist Yabloko party, who is vice chairman of the Duma defense committee, said Russia is facing a simple choice in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

"Either these areas get taken over by Islamic terrorists, or they get an American military and political presence," he said, but added that the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia could complicate Russian-American relations.

Shevardnadze said the move to help train and equip his nation's troops was the result of eight years of talks, and not a direct result of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the resulting war on terror.

Between 100 and 200 American soldiers will be involved, carrying out an operation described as similar to one under way in the Philippines, troops are conducting a joint operation with that country's armed forces.

Detentions in Italy

In other developments:

Italian police detained six men suspected of links to militant groups, including al Qaeda. Last week, officials launched an investigation into a possible planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

In the last 48 hours, Pakistan handed over 22 detainees to the United States, raising the total number of prisoners held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to 216. There are 300 more detained in Guantanamo Bay.

At least one child was killed and dozens were injured when a mortar shell hit a school in eastern Afghanistan, relatives told Reuters news agency. The nearest medical help was a two-hour drive from the primary school in the town of Sarobi, about 30 miles east of Kabul. Officials said they did not know whether the school was targeted or if the shell went astray.

If stability in Afghanistan is to be maintained, economic conditions in the war-torn country need to be improved, the United Nation's special envoy said today. The United Nations is asking for $1.18 billion in new relief support for Afghanistan, on top of the $4.5 billion pledged last month by nations around the world during a meeting in Tokyo. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, said the funds are needed for food, medicine and other humanitarian aid.

As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the British-led peacekeeping force to remain in Afghanistan at least through the summer, one of the force's observation posts outside Kabul was fired upon. No one was hurt in the shooting, the third such incident in the last two weeks.

ABCNEWS' Martha Raddatz at the Pentagon contributed to this report.