SANAA, Yemen — A senior al-Qaida leader was killed in Yemen's central province of Marib while fighting alongside the government forces battling Shiite rebels, officials and tribal leaders said Saturday.
Ghalib al-Zaidi's death came a week ago in an exchange of fire during clashes with the rebels, known as Houthis, in the Sirwah district of Marib, they told The Associated Press. The fighting over the area was supported by air cover from a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's internationally recognized government.
The officials and elders told the AP that al-Zaidi had dozens of al-Qaida operatives under his command and had taken part in several battles against the Houthis in the province. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The coalition couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
In 2017, al-Zaidi was placed on the United Nations Security Council's sanctions list as a Yemen-based individual "who acts for or on behalf of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula." The U.N. found him to be providing the Yemeni affiliate of the global terror network with weapons, funding, and recruits.
Al-Zaidi was also found to have helped AQAP to expand its control in parts of Marib. He had been the group's leader in the province since 2015.
A recent AP investigation found that Saudi-led coalition members through militias they back in Yemen had struck secret deals with al-Qaida, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash. Hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself because they are considered to be exceptional fighters.
The U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Iran-allied rebels for more than three years. Al-Qaida and an Islamic State affiliate have exploited the chaos to expand their presence in the country.
The coalition has long maintained that it's committed to fighting terrorism in Yemen.
AQAP, based in Yemen, is considered the most dangerous branch of the terror network and had attempted attacks on U.S. soil. But in the fight to defeat the Houthis, al-Qaida militants are effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition — and, by extension, the U.S.
The U.S. has sent billions of dollars in weapons for Yemen, provided intelligence used in targeting the coalition's on-the-ground adversaries and American jets provide air-to-air refueling for coalition war planes. But the U.S. does not fund the coalition and there is no evidence that American money went to AQAP militants, according to AP's investigation.
International rights groups have long criticized the U.S. and other Western countries for selling arms to the coalition. In a Friday statement, Human Rights Watch called for the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the coalition's alleged "unlawful attacks" on civilians in Yemen.
"The U.S. operational support for coalition airstrikes could make the U.S. complicit in laws-of-war violations, while continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia could also expose U.S. officials to criminal liability," HRW said.
The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people, devastated the Arab world's poorest country and pushed it to the brink of famine.