updated 3/4/2004 3:01:36 AM ET 2004-03-04T08:01:36

Security forces have arrested a leading al-Qaida member in their pursuit of militants in the south Yemeni mountains, security officials said Thursday.

Abdul Raouf Naseeb was one of more than a dozen militants captured Wednesday night in a security force operation in the mountains of Abyan province, 292 miles south of the capital San'a, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Naseeb was sought by Yemeni police and U.S. officials and is believed to have survived the November 2002 attack by a CIA-operated drone that killed al-Qaida's chief agent in Yemen, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, said the officials. At the time of the attack, Yemeni officials did not say that any al-Qaida operatives had survived.

Naseeb allegedly planned the breakout of 10 militants who escaped from an Aden prison in April 2003, the officials added. The militants had been detained in connection with the suicide attack of the destroyer USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors.

Security forces with tanks and helicopters surrounded a group of militants in the mountains late Wednesday. On Thursday, officials told reporters that the area had been cordoned off and the security forces were giving the militants a chance to surrender.

The crackdown came amid reports of planned attacks in Yemen. Security has been noticeably tightened in the capital, San'a, around embassies, foreign companies and government institutions.

On Wednesday, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that Sayed Imam el-Sharif, a leading member of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, had been arrested in Yemen. Yemeni officials did not confirm the arrest Thursday.

El-Sharif, founder of the Islamic Jihad, moved to Yemen in 1996 and turned over control of the group to Ayman al-Zawahri, now al-Qaida's No. 2 leader.

Officials say the security forces are searching for Yemeni and Arab fighters, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, who took refuge in Yemen after fighting in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden in the 1980s.

Yemen has allied itself with the U.S. war on terrorism, allowing American forces to enter the country and train its military. The country, which long has tolerated Muslim extremists, is the ancestral homeland of bin Laden.

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