DUBAI (Reuters) - The leader of Yemen’s Shi’ite rebels may have died after being severely wounded by government forces in the north of the country, a Yemeni government website and media said on Sunday.
The rebels, known as the Houthis after the family name of their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, are fighting government troops in impoverished Yemen’s mountainous north, complaining of social, religious and economic discrimination.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry said on its website that Houthi was wounded in an attack by government forces and might have died from his wounds.
“There are increasing reports about the death of the terrorist Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, who was severely injured in an attack aimed at a gathering with a group of terrorist elements,” the website said, adding there were reports that he had been buried in Jabel Tolan in the northern Malaheeth area.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television also said the rebel leader was dead, citing unnamed Yemeni sources as saying he was killed in an airstrike. Yemeni news websites carried the same report.
The rebels could not be reached and their website did not comment on the reports. There have been unconfirmed reports about the leader’s death in the past but the latest reports appear to be stronger.
The conflict drew in neighboring Saudi Arabia, the top OPEC oil exporter, after the Houthis seized Saudi territory last month, prompting Riyadh to launch strikes against them.
The United States and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will exploit instability in Yemen to stage attacks in the kingdom and beyond.
The rebels said in a statement on their website on Sunday that Saudi Arabia launched 31 air raids on the Jaberi area — a Saudi territory with a large Houthi concentration — in addition to 15 air strikes on several areas in Yemen on Saturday night.
“Air strikes and missiles continued all of last night...,” the statement said. “This morning, the Saudi army began to advance inland into Jaberi.”
Saudi officials could not be reached for comment.
On Thursday, Yemen said it may have killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda’s regional branch and added that an American Muslim preacher linked to the man who shot dead 13 people at a U.S. army base may also have died.
Apart from the Houthis and al Qaeda, Yemen also faces a separatist movement in the south. On Sunday, the opposition called a strike in Abein province and many shops and government offices closed, witnesses said.
The Houthis rejected accusations by the Yemeni government and some of its regional allies that they have links with al Qaeda militants or Iranian groups.
Sanaa has repeatedly accused the rebels of having links to al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim group whose regional wing has staged attacks inside Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
“The allegation about our relationship with what is called the al Qaeda group is a fabricated lie and defamation,” the office of Houthi said in comments emailed to Reuters this week before reports appeared about his possible death.
Some analysts have suggested al Qaeda may exploit border fighting and may even cooperate with the Houthis, others dismiss this as al Qaeda is partly inspired by Saudi Arabia’s austere Sunni school of Wahhabism, which considers Shi’ites heretics.
“We’re counted as Shi’ites and their (al Qaeda’s) attitude toward Shi’ism is known,” the Houthis said in reply to questions.
The rebels also said they were not backed by Iran. Yemen and some Saudi officials have accused religious figures in Iran of funding the rebels, though they have stopped short of accusing Tehran, a supporter of Shi’ite causes.
“We haven’t got any weapons from Iran and any money at all,” the rebels said. “We respect Iran as an Islamic state but don’t get any support from it.”
Iran denies any involvement and has encouraged Yemen to end the conflict through dialogue.
Additional reporting by Rania Oteify in Dubai, Mohamad Sudam in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaff in Aden; editing by Tim Pearce