updated 9/10/2004 8:43:42 AM ET 2004-09-10T12:43:42

Yemen's Defense and Interior ministries announced the death of a rebel cleric who has led his followers in fierce battles with the government for more than two months, the country's official news agency reported Friday.

"The leader of sedition al-Hawthi was eliminated and killed," the ministries' statement said without elaborating on how or when Hussein Badr Eddin al-Hawthi was killed.

Up to 2,000 soldiers have been involved in the battles against al-Hawthi and his followers in a remote northern region. The government also has recruited tribesmen from elsewhere to help. The conflict has killed more than 600 soldiers and rebels.

Al-Hawthi's supporters maintain the Yemeni government wanted to silence him because he is outspoken against corruption and the government's pro-American policies.

The government accuses al-Hawthi of sedition, attacking government buildings and security forces, forming an illegal armed group and inciting people not to pay taxes.

The government maintains it is pursuing al-Hawthi as an outlaw and not because he is Shiite. Shiites represent about 30 percent of the Yemeni population and generally do not suffer discrimination.

Unlike more strict Shiites in Iran and Iraq, Yemeni Shiites belong to the small Zaidi sect which is closer to the mainstream Sunni sect of Islam.

Yemen, a poor, tribal country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is awash with weapons, with authorities estimating that there are a 60 million firearms, or three for each citizen.

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