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Yemeni Al-Qaeda Cell Leader Killed, State Media Reports

SANAA (Reuters) -- The leader of a Yemeni Al-Qaeda cell has been killed in clashes with security forces, Yemen's state news agency reported today.

The agency said the home of the militant, identified by the governor of Yemen's Shabwa Province as Abdullah al-Mehdarhad, was surrounded by security forces on January 12 and that he was killed as a result of an exchange of fire.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, came to the foreground of U.S.-led efforts to battle Islamist militants after the Yemen-based wing of Al-Qaeda said it was behind a failed December 25 plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.

Two Yemeni soldiers were killed in a road ambush in the country's Shabwa province, said the news agency.

Earlier, the Interior Ministry said at least 15 Shi'ite Muslim rebels were killed in clashes with tribesmen loyal to the central government and in operations by security forces as violence increased in north Yemen.

"At least 15 destructive elements died in the past two days in clashes between tribesmen cooperating with the state and the destructive Houthi elements, and in security force operations launched with army units on Houthi dens," the ministry said in a statement on its website.

The rebels have fought the government since 2004, complaining of social, economic, and religious marginalization.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear Al-Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen's instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the world's top oil exporter, and beyond. Yemen itself produces a small amount of oil.

Yemen, which also faces separatist sentiment in the south, is fighting Al-Qaeda militants in several provinces.