- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2011

SANAA, YEMEN A senior leader of Yemen’s al Qaeda branch has been killed in fighting in the nearly lawless south of the country, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.

A ministry statement said Ayed al-Shabwani was killed in fighting Tuesday near the town of Zinjibar, a provincial capital that has been held by al Qaeda-linked militants since May.

The statement said one of the leader’s cousins, Awad al-Shabwani, also was killed in the fighting, but it gave no further details.

Al-Shabwani has been on the government’s list of most-wanted al Qaeda-linked militants. He escaped death in January, when Yemeni warplanes bombed the Wadi Adeeda area, 115 miles east of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, in Marib province.

The government then claimed that the airstrike killed al-Shabwani along with al Qaeda’s military chief, Qassim al-Raimi, and four other operatives of the group. But al Qaeda released a statement shortly afterward denying that any of its men were killed in the raid.

Al-Shabwani was from the al-Shabwani tribe in the province of Shabwa and is thought to have had his tribe’s protection. He was accused of providing sanctuary for top al Qaeda figures in the country and was implicated in several fatal attacks on security troops and police officers.

Al Qaeda in Yemen has been taking advantage of the turmoil arising from months of protests against the regime across much of the poor Arab nation, seizing and holding territory in the south.

Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen has been a source of serious concern to the United States and Yemen’s rich Arab Gulf neighbors.

In its attempt to dislodge the militants from the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar - both in Abyan province - warplanes and heavy artillery pounded their positions throughout Wednesday night and early Thursday, killing more than 20 militants, military officials said.

They said 10 soldiers were killed and 33 wounded in fighting against militants at al-Code area, near Zinjibar, over the previous 24 hours.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

As many as 90,000 people are thought to have fled Abyan province to the port city of Aden and other nearby cities after the militants seized Zinjibar and Jaar.