SANAA (Reuters) - The leader of a Yemeni al Qaeda cell has been killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, and two Yemeni soldiers were killed in an ambush elsewhere in the same province, Yemen’s state news agency said on Wednesday.
In Yemen’s north, at least 15 Yemeni Shi’ite rebels were killed in clashes with pro-government tribesmen and in Yemeni security operations. Both Saudi Arabia and Yemen have stepped up efforts against the rebels in recent days.
U.S.-led efforts to battle militancy are focussed on Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a failed December 25 plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.
Yemen’s state news agency quoted the governor of Yemen’s Shabwa province as identifying the dead al Qaeda militant as Abdullah al-Mehdar, whose home had been surrounded by security forces late on Tuesday. Mehdar was reported to have led an al Qaeda cell in Shabwa, southeast of Sanaa.
A security official told Reuters that Mehdar died in a heavy exchange of gunfire overnight that partly destroyed his home, where he had been holed up with nine other militants thought to have escaped.
Later, two Yemeni soldiers were killed and four others wounded in a road ambush in the same province, state media said.
“Perhaps al Qaeda elements carried this out in retaliation for the security forces operation last night,” one security official said.
Security forces had also arrested four suspected al Qaeda militants in Shabwa on Tuesday.
Yemen, fighting against a resurgent al Qaeda in many provinces, also faces a Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north and separatist sentiment in the south. The Shi’ite revolt drew in Saudi Arabia after a cross-border rebel raid in November.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, fear al Qaeda will capitalise on Yemen’s instability to spread its operations to the neighbouring kingdom and beyond.
Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula’s southern rim, has shrinking oil reserves and faces a water crisis. Its population of 23 million is expected to double in the next 20 years.
Yemen’s interior ministry said at least 15 Yemeni Shi’ite rebels had been killed over the past two days in clashes with tribesmen loyal to the central government and security forces.
The Houthi rebels, members of minority Shi’ite Zaidi sect, said they have been the target of Saudi air strikes in recent days and that Yemeni mortars have been pounding their positions.
The Yemeni Interior Ministry said on its website, “At least 15 destructive elements died in the past two days in clashes between tribesmen cooperating with the state and the destructive Houthi elements, and in security force operations launched with army units on Houthi dens.”
Saudi security forces had also killed hundreds of rebels who infiltrated the country along the Yemen-Saudi border in clashes that also killed four Saudi soldiers, a Saudi defence official said on Tuesday.
Yemeni forces had also killed 19 rebels in raids on Shi’ite rebel hideouts in the old quarter of the north Yemeni town Saada, Yemen said on Tuesday, without saying when those deaths happened. It said the operation, dubbed ‘Blow to the Head’, was continuing. About 25 rebels were arrested.
Shi’ite insurgents rebelled against the government in 2004, complaining of social, economic and religious marginalisation. The conflict has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people.
Saudi Arabia launched its assault on the Houthi rebels in the area near its border with Yemen in November after the insurgents killed two Saudi border guards.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said it has gained the upper hand in the conflict but fighting has continued. Rebels have rejected the Saudi claims but reported many civilian deaths.
Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Louise Ireland