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.
In a separate development, al Qaeda’s wing in Yemen said in an Internet statement that it would take revenge over raids targeting the group this month, which it said were carried out by U.S. jets and killed about 50 men, women and children.
The Shi’ite 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.
Yemen’s defense ministry website said Houthi was wounded in an attack by troops 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 that he may have been buried already.
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 contacted and their website did not comment on the reports. Past reports about Houthi’s death were never confirmed but the latest reports appeared to be stronger.
The conflict drew in neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top 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 rebel concentration — in addition to 15 air strikes on 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.
“We will not let Muslim women and children’s blood be spilled without taking revenge,” Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said in its statement dated December 20.
The statement appeared on Islamist websites as U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Washington was investigating whether al Qaeda was involved in a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet.
But there was no evidence so far that the Nigerian suspect in the case was part of a larger plot, she said.
After renewed attacks on al Qaeda on December 24, Yemen said it may have killed the top two leaders of the regional wing of the group as well as an American Muslim preacher linked to the man who shot dead 13 people at a U.S. army base.
Apart from the Houthis and al Qaeda, Yemen faces separatist sentiment in the south. On Sunday, the opposition called a strike that shut many shops and offices, 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.
The rebels also denied being backed by Iran. Yemen and some Saudi officials have accused clerics in Iran of funding them. Iran denies involvement and calls for a negotiated solution.
Additional reporting by Firouz Sedarat and Rania Oteify in Dubai, Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa and Mohammed Mokhashaf in Aden; Editing by Jon Boyle