SANAA (AFP) – Yemeni security forces have killed an Al-Qaeda kingpin in Shabwa province in intensive operations against the group believed behind the botched bombing of a US airliner, an official said on Wednesday.
“Abdullah Mehdar was killed last night by security forces which had besieged the house he hid in,” provincial Governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi told reporters.
Mehdar was the leader of an Al-Qaeda cell in al-Houta region, in the province of Shabwa, 600 kilometres (375 miles) east of Sanaa.
Security forces were hunting for the remaining members of the cell, Ahmadi said.
The Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day attack on a US airliner, with the United States accusing the group of training the alleged perpetrator, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Ahmadi had told AFP on Tuesday that security forces arrested four Al-Qaeda suspects, two of them wounded in a firefight.
A tribal source said that 18 suspects in the same area managed to escape a police raid and fled to a neighbouring mountain.
The Yemeni government had sent military reinforcements over the past few weeks to some eastern provinces as it intensified its fight against Al-Qaeda militants.
Separately, two policemen were killed and four wounded in an ambush by unknown gunmen in the area of al-Nuqbah, in Shabwa, Ahmadi said.
The governor had on Sunday announced that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, including Saudis and Egyptians who have fled Afghanistan, are hiding in Shabwa.
Among them, he added, are the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Nasser al-Wahishi, his deputy Saeed Ali al-Shehri and radical US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi.
Yemen Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi on Tuesday renewed an offer to talk to the Al-Qaeda loyalists provided they lay down their arms but he warned that the government would hunt them down if they spurn the offer.
Yemen insists it can win the war against the militants without US military intervention, but analysts fear it cannot tackle the jihadists on its own.
Yemen is under pressure to rein in the extremists, with the United States and Britain announcing plans to fund the country’s Counter-Terrorism Unit.
But US President Barack Obama has said he has “no intention” of sending American troops to Yemen, or neighbouring Somalia.
Radical Yemeni cleric Abdulmajeed al-Zendani, branded by the United States as a “global terrorist,” warned on Monday that any US military intervention in Yemen to fight Al-Qaeda would be considered an occupation.
Yemen insists it is winning the war against the jihadists, pointing to two separate air raids in December that killed more than 60 suspected Al-Qaeda militants.
A week ago, officials announced the capture of key Al-Qaeda leader Mohammed al-Hanq and two other militants believed behind threats against Western interests in Sanaa that caused embassies to close for several days.
Saudi analyst Anwar Eshki said Al-Qaeda militants have been fleeing to Yemen after coming under tremendous pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan and because of a crackdown in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
“The network is trying to establish itself in Yemen,” Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Strategic Studies Centre, told AFP.