An Islamist group linked to al Qaeda has denied that its media chief was killed in an air raid in southern Yemen two weeks ago.

The group, Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), also took responsibility for an explosion at France's Total gas pipeline in mid-October that halted supplies to the Belhaf LNG plant.

In leaflets distributed in mosques and markets in Yemen's southern Shabwa province, it described government reports of Ibrahim al-Banna's killing as lies.

We denounce American attacks on the Arabian Peninsula which is based on crusader thinking, said the leaflet, referring to U.S. drone attacks in Yemen. The blood of Muslims will not be spilt in vain.

Yemen's government says Ansar al-Sharia is the Yemeni wing of al Qaeda. Some analysts say other local militant Islamist groups could be at work.

Months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule have weakened already loose central government control over whole swathes of the country.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United States fear militants including al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula branch (AQAP) are exploiting growing lawlessness in the impoverished state and firming their foothold there.

The leaflets said the Yemeni government had often taken credit for killing militants, only for them to turn up alive later on. Al Qaeda usually hails the death of its members or affiliates in postings on Internet forums.

Separately, an army official said a soldier and two militants were killed in a gun battle on Monday in the southern province of Abyan, where Islamist fighters have seized several towns in recent months.

The official said clashes broke out when militants tried to sneak into a part of the provincial capital Zinjibar held by the army, which last month said it had recaptured the city, although fighting has continued there.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles Editing by Maria Golovnina)