YEMEN: Government troops battle Shiite rebels

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Yemen kept up its military offensive today against Shiite rebels in the northwest as troops, artillery and aircraft attacked a militant stronghold near the border with Saudi Arabia.

The mountainous Saada province shook with gunfire and explosions for a second day. The Sunni-led government, which claims the rebels have killed more than 330 people over the last year, said that militants had taken over schools and seized teachers. The Associated Press quoted a health official as saying that 12 people had been killed in the fighting.

The assault against the rebels comes as this poor nation has grown unstable with dangers on other fronts: a separatist insurgency in the south and an infusion of Al Qaeda fighters planning attacks across the Middle East. Such a scenario is an increasing concern for neighboring Saudi Arabia and its oilfields.

The battle against the Shiite militants in the northwest is the latest flareup in a 5-year-old rebellion led by Abdul Malik Houthi. The Shiites, who want a return to clerical law, claim they are persecuted and that their region has not been developed. The government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh said the offensive was called after the insurgents violated a recent ceasefire.


A statement earlier this week by Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee said: “The state will strike these elements . . . with an iron fist until they surrender themselves to justice.”

Mohammed Qadhi, a reporter for the National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, told Al Jazeera that hundreds of people had fled the fighting:

‘They’re launching an all-out war right now, and we’ve heard reports from Sadaa that the military is using planes to attack the strongholds of the rebels,” he said. “The skirmishes and the clashes have been going on since last June. . .So many people have been fleeing to Saada town, and this has put pressure on the camps of the refugees there.’

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo