Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration demanding the prosecution of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Nov. 24, 2011. (AP)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama served notice Wednesday to those seeking to disrupt Yemen's political transition that he would use whatever authority is available to sanction individuals and entities who undermine stability in the strategically important Middle Eastern nation.
Obama signed an executive order allowing the Treasury Department to freeze U.S.-based assets of those who the White House says "threaten the peace, security and stability" of Yemen. The order was meant as a deterrent against future action and does not immediately levy any penalties against specific people or organizations.
Yemen is a key counterterrorism partner for the U.S. and officials fear that political instability there will provide an opening for al-Qaida affiliated terror groups to expand their influence. The White House says Obama took the step because he believes the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people cannot be addressed if political progress there stalls.
Yemen has been a launching pad for attacks against the U.S. by the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Last week, The Associated Press disclosed that the CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design.
The Pentagon also announced last week that it was sending military trainers back to Yemen for "routine" counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces amid an intensified battle against terrorists. The training program in Yemen was suspended last year after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly injured in a militant attack.
Under a U.S.-backed transition plan, Saleh stepped down earlier this year after more than 30 years in power, clearing the way for his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to assume control of the government. U.S. officials allowed Saleh to come to the U.S. for medical treatment during the transition to help ensure it went off smoothly.
With Saleh back in Yemen, some U.S. officials have expressed concerns that he could try to wield power from the sidelines through his network of relatives and allies.
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