SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's president met a top U.S. general on Saturday to discuss boosting military cooperation, after President Barack Obama tied al Qaeda's regional arm to the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. passenger jet.
Yemen also said it was tightening security along its coastline to prevent Islamist militants infiltrating from Somalia. However, a local Shi'ite rebel group said it was ready to talk peace with President Ali Abdullah Saleh once fighting in its conflict with the Sanaa government had stopped.
U.S. General David Petraeus met Saleh for talks focusing on strengthening security, military and economic cooperation, an official said. Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command, also handed over a letter from Obama.
Details of the letter were not released but on Friday Obama said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, appeared to have trained, equipped and directed the Nigerian who tried to bomb the flight heading for the U.S. city of Detroit.
Petraeus has said Washington would more than double its $70 million security assistance to Yemen.
The United States and neighbouring Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda could exploit instability across Yemen, which also faces separatist sentiment in the mainly Sunni Muslim south, to turn the country into a launchpad for more international attacks.
U.S. officials have said they were looking at ways to expand military and intelligence cooperation with Yemen, the poorest Arab state, to root out al Qaeda leadership in the country.
Washington has increased training, intelligence and military equipment provided to Yemeni forces, helping them to stage raids against suspected al Qaeda hideouts last month.
Yemen has tightened security measures on its coastline, boosting monitoring and inspections, to prevent militants from Somalia from entering the country, the state news agency said.
"Yemen will not tolerate any terrorist elements on its territories and will be ready to retaliate against anyone looking to tamper with its security and stability," Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Saba News.
Somalia's hardline Islamist rebel group al Shabaab said on Friday it was ready to send reinforcements to al Qaeda in Yemen should the U.S. carry out retaliatory strikes, and urged other Muslims to follow suit.
However, Yemen's Shi'ite rebels responded positively on Saturday to a plea from Saleh, saying they were ready for talks with the government once fighting stops.
"We welcome the call by the president of the republic to return to dialogue, and consider it a positive call and a right step to peace and a return to security and stability," Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the northern Yemen-based rebels, said in a statement carried on a rebel website.
"We confront aggression and defend ourselves, and when the war stops, we are ready for dialogue," he added. He also denied that his group was targeting neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has been drawn into the conflict.
There was no immediate response from the Yemeni government.
Saleh, in a New Year plea, had offered to extend a hand of peace if the Shi'ite rebels fulfilled conditions such as abandoning violence, freeing prisoners and agreeing to stop attacks on Saudi territory.
The Yemeni president, writing in the state's al-Thawra newspaper, called on the northern rebels and southern separatists on Friday to abandon violence and urged anyone tempted by al Qaeda to reconsider.
"The time has come to lay down your weapons, to steer clear of the violence and the terror and evil acts so as to save your souls and be good citizens in your society," Saleh said.
Northern Shi'ite rebels from the Zaidi sect have been fighting government troops in Yemen's mountainous north since 2004, complaining of marginalisation. The conflict has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.
In the south, Yemen has also clashed with separatist protesters seeking independence for southern Yemen, which unified with its northern neighbour in 1990 and failed to secede in a 1994 war.
(Writing by Cythnia Johnston, additional reporting by Tamara Walid in Dubai and Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa; editing by David Stamp)