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Yemeni leader of al-Qaeda might be dead

SAN'A, Yemen - Yemeni forces killed six suspected al-Qaeda militants yesterday, possibly including the network's top military commander in Yemen, in an airstrike near the Saudi Arabian border, Yemeni officials said.

The assault - the fifth airstrike in Yemen targeting suspected Islamist extremists in less than a month - was the latest in what appears to be an escalating campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate that asserted responsibility for the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

It was not immediately clear if the U.S. military was directly involved in yesterday's strike. Yemen's government, which depends in part on the support of Islamic radicals to maintain its hold on power, is wary of being seen as too closely allied with Washington.

Four of those killed were on Yemen's list of most-wanted al-Qaeda figures, including Qassim al-Raimi, the top military chief in the terrorist network's offshoot in Yemen.

Yemen has wrongly reported his death in the past. A written statement from the government's Supreme Security Committee said this time it had intelligence that al-Raimi was among those in two cars that were destroyed in the airstrike on the edge of Jouf province.

The six al-Qaeda militants killed included Abu Ali al-Harithi, the one-time leader of al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, who the United States said was involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the southern port of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors.

Yemeni officials described the other three who were killed as among the branch's "most dangerous" operatives. Two other suspected militants escaped, officials said.

Al-Raimi was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison in 2005 for planning to assassinate the U.S. ambassador and bomb the diplomatic quarter in the capital, Sana'a. Neither plot was carried out. In 2006, he escaped from a Yemeni prison, along with 22 other al-Qaeda militants.

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