November 23, 2009 / 1:12 PM / 10 years ago

Saudis pound Yemen rebels, arrest scores - source

RIYADH/SANAA (Reuters) - Saudi air force and artillery pounded Yemeni rebel hideouts to push the rebels away from its southwestern border and stop the war spilling into its territory, a Saudi security source said on Monday.

Soldiers aim their weapons at rebel targets in the northwestern Yemeni province of Saada, where the army is fighting Shi'ite rebels, in this undated picture released by the Yemeni army on November 23, 2009. REUTERS/Yemen Army/Handout

The source said Saudi forces also detained scores of rebels during the military operation in the strategic Jabal Dukhan border area on Sunday.

The rebels said on their website on Monday that the Saudi military had widened the scope of its air offensive, carrying out repeated air strikes as well as artillery attacks on the outskirts of Saada city, the capital of their mountainous stronghold Saada province.

Saudi Arabia launched its assault on neighbouring Yemen’s Shi’ite Muslim rebels — known as the Houthis — earlier this month after rebels staged a cross-border incursion that killed two Saudi border guards.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, fears the growing instability in neighbouring Yemen could turn into a major security threat for the kingdom by allowing al Qaeda to gain a stronger foothold in the impoverished country.

Global aid organisations have voiced deep concern at the escalation of the conflict in north Yemen, where the United Nations now says 175,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz on Monday was quoted as saying that a link between al Qaeda and the rebels was possible.

“It cannot be ruled out that there are contacts or coordination between them,” Prince Nayef said, according to the Saudi-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Saudi media carry frequent reports of an al Qaeda presence among the Houthis and echo Sanaa’s claim that Iran backs the rebels.

The Houthis belong to the minority Zaidi sect of Shi’ism, and complain of social, economic and religious marginalisation by Sanaa, but both the rebels and the Yemeni government deny their aims are sectarian.

Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally which sees itself as the guardian of Sunni Islam, has been at odds with Shi’ite Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

On Sunday, the Houthis said they had thwarted an attempt by the Saudi military to enter Yemen by land, inflicting “heavy losses” and forcing them to abandon a number of vehicles and weapons, according to a statement on their website.

A spokesman for the Yemeni army denied that the Saudi armed forces had entered Yemen.

“Each side is dealing with the rebels on its own territory,” Colonel Askar Zaayl said. “It’s not true that the Saudis are launching strikes and attacks inside Yemeni territory.”

Reporting by Mohamed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa and Ulf Laessing in Riyadh, Writing by Raissa Kasolowsky in Dubai; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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