* Minister says returning inmates to go through rehabilitation
* Most previously returned inmates leading normal lives
* Unemployment, poverty remain challenges
By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA, May 29 (Reuters) - Yemen's human rights minister appealed to the United States and Gulf Arab countries to help fund a $20 million rehabilitation centre that Sanaa says will stop Yemenis released from Guantanamo Bay prison going back to militant activities.
Washington halted the repatriation of Yemeni prisoners in 2010 after a man trained by al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound plane in 2009 with a bomb concealed in his underwear.
Last week U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to lift the ban on transfers of Guantanamo prison inmates back to Yemen to address one of the main obstacles to clearing out the facility.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi told visiting U.S. Senator John McCain on Tuesday that Yemen welcomed the decision and said the detainees "will be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society", according to state news agency Saba.
To this end, the government has approved a plan to build a rehabilitation facility at a cost of between $18-$20 million but needed help to fund it, Human Rights Minister Houriah Mashhour told Reuters.
"The (financial) support that the United States would offer to Yemen in this regard will not be more than what it is (currently) spending to maintain Guantanamo prison," Mashhour said in an interview on Wednesday.
She also appealed to wealthy Gulf Arab sponsors of a 2011 power transfer deal that helped end months of political turmoil in the country.
Yemen is one of the region's most impoverished countries and home to one of al Qaeda's active networks - Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Of the 86 detainees who have been cleared for transfer or release from Guantanamo, 56 are from Yemen. Another 80 prisoners have not yet been cleared and an unknown number of those are Yemeni as well. More than 100 prisoners are on hunger strike, some since February, demanding to be freed.
Like inmates from other countries, most of the Yemeni prisoners were captured more than a decade ago, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
While the United States has worked out agreements with other countries to send detainees home, it remained reluctant to do so in the case of Yemen because of security concerns.
Mashhour said she did not expect the repatriation of the detainees would start before the end of this year, and ruled out putting them on trial in Yemen.
"Had there been any evidence against them, the United States would have put them on trial," she said.
"But rehabilitating them is an issue that is not exclusively a Yemeni issue. Saudi Arabia has a similar programme which Guantanamo inmates have been put through."
Mashhour said that most of the 21 inmates who were repatriated before 2010 have returned to normal life.
"Some of them had visited me at the ministry and said they are working for some companies," she said.
Asked if any had returned to militant activities, she said: "Maybe very few did, but I do not have precise information on that..."
Yemen was among several countries hit by Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in 2011. The turmoil brought the country to the brink of civil war and emboldened al Qaeda and its Islamist allies before the power transfer deal that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh and put Hadi, his deputy, in charge.
Yemen has since made some progress in restoring stability but many challenges remain, including the Islamist insurgency that has delivered some deadly strikes at government targets and military facilities in the past two years.
Mashhour said unemployment and poverty were also major challenges that help militant groups recruit followers.
She said investment in job creation and a professional rehabilitation programme would address many of these concerns and prepare the returnees for a return to productive life. (Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Sonya Hepinstall)
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