Al-Qaida’s offshoot in Yemen denied in an Internet statement on Monday that government airstrikes last week killed its top military leader in the country and five other militants.
However, the group conceded that some of its “brothers” - militant jargon for members of the group – were wounded in Friday’s raid outside a remote desert village near the Yemen-Saudi border.
Yemeni officials had said the strikes killed six al-Qaida operatives, including military chief Qassim al-Raimi and three others who were on the government’s list of the most-wanted al-Qaida figures in Yemen.
Al-Raimi was described as one of Yemen’s most-wanted militants who had plotted to assassinate the U.S. ambassador. He was also said to have escaped a government attack that targeted him last month.
“We assure our Islamic nation that no holy warrior was killed in that perfidious raid, but some brothers were slightly injured,” said the group.
The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified but it was posted on a website commonly used for militant messages. It urged Yemenis not to pay attention to government claims. “The Yemen government not only lies about the number of those killed, but also lies about the names it mentioned in its failed raid,” the statement said. It wasn’t immediately clear if that referred to the others the government listed as killed in the airstrikes.
In Yemen, government officials declined to comment on al-Qaida’s denial. Yemeni officials have wrongly reported al-Raimi’s death before.
With the help of U.S. counterterrorism aid and training, Yemen has intensified an offensive against the al-Qaida offshoot, which has dug in lawless regions of the mountainous, impoverished nation, sometimes under the protection of powerful local tribes that have their own grievances with the weak government.
In 2005, al-Raimi was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for plotting a bomb attack in the capital and planning to assassinate the American ambassador. Neither plot was carried out. He escaped from prison in February 2006 with 21 other militants, fleeing through a 200-yard tunnel that ended inside a mosque.
A year ago, al-Qaida’s Yemen and Saudi operations merged to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Raimi is believed to have been influential in strengthening the group.