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01 October 2023

Yemeni Al Qaeda chiefs killed in air strike

An air strike against an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) convoy in north Yemen on Friday killed six suspected leaders of the group including its military chief, a senior Yemeni official said.

Qassem al-Rimi was among 23 people who had made a daring escape from a state security prison in Sanaa in February 2006 that left the government red-faced, and he was on a list of 152 suspects wanted by the authorities.

"Six Al-Qaeda leaders, including the network's military chief, Qassem al-Rimi, were killed on Friday," the official said on condition of anonymity.

He added that the raid had targeted eight suspects.

In addition to Rimi, Ayedh al-Shabwani was also killed when a warplane attacked a convoy of vehicles with air-to-ground missiles, the official said without identifying the other four dead.

However a security official later told AFP that an Al-Qaeda "ideologist" identified as Egyptian Abu Ayman al-Masri had been among those killed, along with Abdullah Hedi al-Tais.

Two suspects -- Ammar al-Waili and Saleh al-Tais -- fled the scene. Earlier they were said to have been killed in the strike on a three-vehicle convoy in Al-Ajashir, a desert region in eastern Saada province.

A tribal leader said by telephone he saw a warplane target three 4X4 vehicles, and that the first missile missed.

"A second missile threw up a large plume of dust," he said, adding that he then "saw one of the three vehicles flee the scene."

The tribal leader said the convoy had been en route from Maarib province to Saada province, where AQAP was reported to have a camp at Wadi Al Abu-Jabara.

"Rimi was the principal architect of most of Al-Qaeda's operations in Yemen," the senior official said, adding that the man had slipped through a dragnet twice before, in 2008 and at the end of 2009.

He and Waili were on a list of 152 suspects wanted by the authorities and both of them were accused of providing safe haven to Al-Qaeda militants in Saada and Maarib, the official said.

"We will continue to track down Al-Qaeda terrorists," he said. "The government will use every means at its disposal to eradicate terrorism."

Friday's air raid came as Britain said it would host an international meeting on battling extremism in Yemen on January 27 in London, rather than on the 28th as originally planned.

In a Friday sermon, meanwhile, powerful cleric Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zendani said it would be "a religious duty dictated by God" to defend Yemen through jihad, if it is occupied by a foreign power.

On Wednesday the chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, urged Washington to consider targeting Al-Qaeda in Yemen with drones, air strikes or covert operations, but not invade the country.

US President Barack Obama has said he has "no intention" of sending troops to Yemen. AQAP claimed responsibility for a botched attack on a US airliner on Christmas Day.

"From the moment the enemy invites itself onto our territory and occupies us, our religion imposes (the obligation of) jihad on us," said Zendani, whom the US administration labels a "global terrorist."

"It is a religious duty dictated by God," he said, echoing a similar call made Thursday by Yemen's council of clerics of which he is a member.

"This order of God cannot be annulled by anyone... not a king, not a president, not ulema (Muslim scholars)," Zendani added.

Washington has accused AQAP of training the man who allegedly carried out the failed Christmas Day attack, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Friday's operation was the latest in a series of blows since December, when the government launched its latest campaign against Al-Qaeda.

On Tuesday, security forces killed Abdullah Mehdar, said to be the group's kingpin in Shabwa province, east of the capital.

Provincial Governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi said dozens of fighters, including Saudis and Egyptians who had fled Afghanistan, were hiding in Shabwa.

Among them, he said, were current AQAP chief Nasser al-Wahaishi, his Saudi number two Saeed Ali al-Shehri and radical US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi.

A week ago, officials announced the capture of key leader Mohammed al-Hanq and two other militants believed behind threats against Western interests in Sanaa that caused embassies to close for several days.


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