DUBAI (Reuters) - A Yemeni minister downplayed al Qaeda's presence in the troubled Arabian Peninsula country, saying in comments published on Sunday reports of militants relocating there from Iraq and Afghanistan were "exaggerated."
Yemen has been battling a wave of al Qaeda attacks, as well as a rebellion by a Shi'ite sect linked to the Houthi tribe in the north, and secessionist sentiment in the south.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, has said it fears instability in Yemen could allow it to become a launch pad for a revival of a 2003-2006 campaign by al Qaeda militants to destabilise the U.S.-allied ruling Al Saud family.
"Western think tanks say that al Qaeda has moved from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen but the truth of the matter is that this is exaggerated," Abubakr al-Qirbi, the country's foreign minister, said in Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat.
"A limited group of al Qaeda elements are trying to involve themselves with the Houthis and the secessionists to take advantage of the current situation," he said.
The government accused Houthis of being behind the kidnapping of nine foreigners in the north last month. Three of them were found dead and the fate of the others remains unknown.
The Shi'ite group has denied any involvement in the incident which some analysts have said bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda.
"Now with this moving into destructive (militant) activity, the government will have no choice but to take measures against them," he said, vowing a tougher government policy.
Last week, a Yemeni court sentenced six men to death for attacks that killed nine Spanish and Belgian tourists over the past two years, and 10 others were sentenced to jail terms ranging from eight to 15 years.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Jason Benham and Sophie Hares)