SANAA (Reuters) -- A Nigerian man accused in the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound plane on Christmas Day was recruited by Al-Qaeda in London and met a radical American Muslim cleric in Yemen, a top Yemeni official said.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of Al-Qaeda said it was behind the failed bomb attempt.
"The information provided to us is that Umar Farouk [Abdulmutallab] joined Al-Qaeda in London," Rshad al-Alimi, Yemen's Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Security, told a news conference today.
Alimi said that Abdulmutallab had also met with Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki during his time in Yemen, referring to an English-speaking cleric linked to a gunman who ran amok in a U.S. army base in Texas.
A Yemeni security official has said Awlaki was believed to have later died in a strike on Al-Qaeda militants last month.
Yemen, trying to fight a resurgent Al-Qaeda on its territory, launched an operation this week to root out Al-Qaeda militants who they said were behind threats that forced Western embassies to close on January 3.
The raid, which killed two militants, allayed U.S. concerns and allowed its heavily fortified mission to reopen.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi, whose country is also facing a Shi'ite revolt in the north and simmering separatist sentiment in the south, said fighting militants was a priority for Yemeni forces and rejected foreign intervention.
"We think this is the priority and the responsibility of our security forces and the army," Qirbi told the U.S. news channel CNN.
Asked by CNN whether Yemen would accept direct U.S. intervention, Qirbi said: "No, I don't think we will accept that. I think the U.S., as well, have learned from Afghanistan and Iraq and other places that direct intervention can be self-defeating."
Yemen has sent troops to take part in a campaign against Al-Qaeda in three provinces this week. One security source said forces had set up extra checkpoints on main roads.
Yemeni forces had surrounded a suspected Al-Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday, and have captured eight rank-and-file Al-Qaeda militants in recent days, including three wounded in the January 4 raid, security sources said.
The West and Saudi Arabia fear Al-Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen's instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the world's biggest oil exporter, and beyond. Yemen is a small oil producer.
"I think our thought was that maybe we should spare Al-Qaeda in the last year because of the confrontation in the south and with the Houthis [rebels]. But Al-Qaeda took advantage of that," Qirbi said, adding that the militant network had tried to make inroads with northern rebels and southern separatists.
"Then they went even further to arrange for some suicidal attacks in Sanaa. And this is why it was important that our security forces should take action against them," he added.
Yemen, with shrinking oil reserves, a water crisis and fast-growing population, has stepped up security on its coast to block militants from reaching its shores from Somalia. Qirbi said there were about 200 to 300 Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
"How many of them are going to entertain terrorist attacks is something that is obviously of concern to us. This is why we always stress the importance of cooperation with the United States and other countries in the region," he said.
Yemeni officials acknowledge the need for U.S. help with counterterrorism, but say the government also lacks resources to tackle the poverty that widens Al-Qaeda's recruiting pool.
Gunmen shot dead two Yemeni soldiers in attack on a police station in Aden, the former capital of south Yemen, witnesses and security sources said today. The gunmen were believed to be suspects wanted in criminal cases, an independent Yemeni news website reported, quoting a security official.