DUBAI (Reuters) - The Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said on Monday its fighters had survived an air strike last week that Yemeni officials said killed six leaders of the militant group.
Yemen, under pressure to fight a resurgent al Qaeda on its territory, said it believed the militants had spirited away the bodies before army troops could reach the scene. It also threatened al Qaeda with more strikes.
“The Yemeni government has been making many false claims ... against the Mujahideen leaders in the Arabian Peninsula,” al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said in a statement on an Islamist website used by the group.
“The latest of these claims is that it killed six of them between the provinces of al-Jawf and Saada. We assure our Muslim nation that none of the Mujahideen were killed in that strike, but some have suffered mild injuries,” it added.
Yemen declared open war on the militant group last week, a day before security officials said air strikes in northern Yemen killed six al Qaeda leaders. If true, the strikes would have dealt a severe blow to the group but the report could not be independently confirmed.
In Ottawa, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said the strikes had been carried out in a remote part of Yemen.
“This is why it makes it very difficult really to provide exact information on who has been actually killed ... in some cases al Qaeda will withdraw their killed operatives and will bury them before the armed forces get to that area,” he said.
Asked if he believed al Qaeda had removed the bodies of those killed in the latest strike, he replied, “Yes, exactly.”
Yemen, which faces a northern Shi’ite revolt and separatism in the south, came to the forefront of U.S.-led efforts to battle militants after al Qaeda’s Yemen wing said it was behind an attempt on December 25 to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane.
A Defense Ministry newspaper quoted Interior Minister Muttahar al-Masri as threatening al Qaeda with more strikes.
“These strikes will not be the last so long as the security and stability of the country and its institutions is targeted by terrorist elements,” the “September 26” newspaper quoted Masri as saying.
Friday’s strike on two cars was reported to have killed the Yemeni al Qaeda wing’s military chief, Qasim al-Raymi, as well as Ayed al-Shabwani, accused of sheltering militants on his farm in Maarib province, where their training took place.
Yemen gained a reputation as an al Qaeda haven after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and came under the spotlight after crackdowns on the group in Pakistan and Afghanistan raised fears Yemen was becoming a training and recruiting center for militants.
The death of another militant, Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Yemen reported last month might have been killed in an air strike, was never confirmed.
A local government source in Shabwa province later said officials were in talks with tribal sheikhs to try to persuade him to surrender, or be taken by force.
Saudi Arabia said on Monday three Saudi militants on a wanted list of 85 al Qaeda sympathizers were killed in September in a blast outside the country. One had been repatriated after being held in the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo, it said.
The Saudi interior ministry said in a statement DNA tests identified the men, adding they had been plotting attacks inside Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
Asked about the blast’s location, a ministry spokesman, referred to Saudi-owned newspaper al-Hayat which had reported in September the killing of two militants in Yemen in north Yemen in clashes between the Yemeni army and Shi’ite rebels.
Qirbi, who said Yemen needed help training and equipping its counter-terrorism forces, rapped what he said were ignorant critics of his country.
“I think there are a lot of experts on Yemen who write a lot of articles about Yemen, and analyses, and they have never visited Yemen,” he told a news conference in Ottawa after meeting Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.
“Of course there are problems in Yemen, but I think they are unfortunately exaggerated.”
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Charles Dick