SANAA — Yemeni security forces have killed an Al-Qaeda kingpin in an eastern province in operations against the group held responsible for the botched bombing of a US airliner, an official said.
"Abdullah Mehdar was killed last night (Tuesday) by security forces which had besieged the house he hid in," Shabwa's provincial governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi told reporters.
Mehdar was the leader of an Al-Qaeda cell in the Al-Houta district of Shabwa province, 600 kilometres (375 miles) east of the capital 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.
Yemen's national security chief Ali Anisi said Mehdar was an "important member of the network" and boasted of successful attacks on Al-Qaeda militants even before the failed plane bombing.
"We are on the offensive and the terrorists are terrified and in hiding," he told AFP.
"Yemen is not Afghanistan, nor Pakistan, where terrorists constantly launch attacks while the authorities try to respond. Here, we anticipate the threat. Yemen is not a hideout for the terrorists and will never be," he added.
Ahmadi told AFP on Tuesday that security forces had arrested four Al-Qaeda suspects, two of them wounded in a firefight.
A tribal source said 18 suspects in the same area managed to escape a police raid and fled to a neighbouring mountain.
The Yemeni government has sent troop reinforcements to some eastern provinces in recent weeks as it has intensified its fight against Al-Qaeda militants.
Separately, two policemen were killed and four wounded in an ambush by unknown gunmen in Al-Nuqbah area of Shabwa province, Ahmadi said.
The governor announced on Sunday that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, including Saudis and Egyptians who have fled Afghanistan, were hiding in Shabwa.
Among them are the Yemeni leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasser al-Wahishi, his Saudi number two, Saeed Ali al-Shehri, and radical US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, he added.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi renewed an offer to talk to Al-Qaeda loyalists provided they lay down their arms but warned that the government would hunt them down if they spurn the offer.
But a foreign ministry official said on Wednesday that dialogue with militants would only take place through the government's programme to rehabilitate penitent rebels.
Yemen insists it can win the war against the militants without US military intervention, but analysts doubt it can tackle the jihadists on its own.
The Arabian peninsula country 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 to Somalia, in the Horn of Africa just across the Bab al-Mandab strait.
Radical Yemeni cleric Abdulmajeed al-Zendani, branded a "global terrorist" by the United States, 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 to be behind threats against Western interests in Sanaa that caused embassies to close for several days.
Anisi said an air raid on December 17 on what he termed an Al-Qaeda base in the southeastern province of Abyan had caused the "destruction of a main site of Al-Qaeda" in Yemen.
"This was the only place which they could have called a training camp," Anisi said.
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