RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia seized up to 2,000 illegal migrants a day at its remote border with Yemen during fighting there in January, the Saudi anti-terrorism chief said, according to U.S. diplomatic cables issued by WikiLeaks.
The Gulf Arab kingdom is worried that al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing is exploiting instability in its impoverished neighbor to stage more attacks inside Saudi Arabia, after Riyadh halted a militant campaign with the help of foreign experts in 2006.
Saudi Arabia has been trying to seal off the 1,500 km (932 mile) long border to stop al Qaeda infiltration and smuggling by building a fence, though diplomats see little progress given the tough environment with few roads and high mountains.
"We have been arresting between one to two thousand people each day," said counter-terrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, according to a cable from January 2010, when Saudi forces were fighting Yemeni Shi'ite rebels near the border.
"He also admitted that the Saudis have maintained a common practice of feeding those caught crossing before transporting them back across the border," the cable said.
"We need to change that," Prince Mohammed said, suggesting that many may cross the border only for a free meal.
The Saudi and Yemeni wings of al Qaeda merged last year to form a regional group based in Yemen which has claimed responsibility for a parcel bomb plot from Yemen.
Yemen's cash-strapped government is not only struggling to curb a resurgent al Qaeda wing, it is also trying to cement a shaky truce with rebels in the north and suppress a separatist rebellion in the south.
Last month, Saudi Arabia arrested 149 militants mainly led by al Qaeda in Yemen who planned to attack security forces, officials and journalists in the top oil exporter.