By Mohamed Sudam
SANAA (Reuters) – Yemeni security forces killed an al Qaeda leader in clashes and scoured rugged mountains in search of 25 militants who escaped capture during security operations in the Shabwa province southeast of the capital Sanaa.
Yemeni security officials said that Abdullah al-Mehdar, identified as leader of an al Qaeda cell in Shabwa, was killed in a heavy exchange of fire overnight that partly destroyed his home, which security forces had surrounded on Tuesday.
Four militants were arrested on Tuesday while others escaped, the sources said. Two Yemeni soldiers were killed in Shabwa and four others wounded in a suspected retaliatory road ambush, security officials said.
“Perhaps al Qaeda elements carried this out in retaliation for the security forces operation last night,” one security official said.
U.S.-led efforts to battle militancy are focused on Yemen after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a failed December 25 plot to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.
Yemen, fighting a resurgent al Qaeda in many provinces, also faces a Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north and separatist sentiment in the south. Saudi Arabia has been fighting rebels since the insurgents carried out a cross-border raid in November.
Yemen’s foreign ministry, whose government has flirted with the idea of dialogue with the Islamist militant network, said that any talks with al Qaeda would have to yield a renunciation of violence and would be aimed at countering militancy.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, fear al Qaeda will capitalize on Yemen’s instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom and beyond.
“Any dialogue with al-Qaeda will be a part of a program adopted by the government to open the door for those deceived elements to renounce violence and return to the right path and get involved in their community as good citizens,” a foreign ministry spokesman said, according Yemen’s state news agency.
SHI’ITE REBELS KILLED
A Yemeni military jet crashed on Wednesday close to an army camp near the southern port city of Aden, and the pilot was missing, a Yemeni government official said. The official said the jet was being used for training.
Violence also flared in north Yemen, where at least 15 Yemeni Shi’ite rebels were killed over the past two days in clashes with pro-government tribesmen and in Yemeni security operations, the interior ministry said.
Both Saudi Arabia and Yemen have stepped up efforts against the rebels in recent days. A Saudi defense official said on Tuesday that Saudi forces had killed hundreds of rebels who infiltrated the country along the Yemen-Saudi border. Those clashes also killed four Saudi soldiers.
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.”
News of the violence came a day after Yemen said it had killed 19 rebels in house-to-house raids in another part of northern Yemen, without saying when those deaths happened. It said the operation, dubbed ‘Blow to the Head’, was continuing. About 25 rebels were arrested.
The Houthi rebels, members of the minority Shi’ite Zaidi sect, said they have been the target of Saudi air strikes and Yemeni mortar attacks in recent days.
Shi’ite insurgents rebelled against the government in 2004, complaining of social, economic and religious marginalization. The conflict has killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 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 and have accused their foes of deliberately targeting civilians.