Saudi fighter jets target rebels inside Yemen
Saudi Arabian warplanes attacked Shiite rebel strongholds in northern Yemen on Thursday in a surge of fighting along the border that followed the death of a Saudi security official at the hands of insurgents, according to news reports.
Saudi fighter jets targeted as many as six rebel positions in Yemen and along the mountainous border. Saudi troops reportedly were heading toward the region to secure villages and prevent further cross-border incursions by Houthi rebel forces, which have been sporadically battling the Yemeni government since 2004.
Saudi airstrikes “began on their [rebel] positions in northern Yemen” late Wednesday afternoon, an advisor to the Saudi government told Reuters. The advisor asked not to be named because operations were still underway. “There have been successive airstrikes, very heavy bombardment of their positions, not just on the border but on” rebel camps around the northern city of Saada.
The Yemeni government has not released a statement on the Saudi offensive, but Al Jazeera news channel quoted a Yemeni Defense Ministry official as saying, “Saudi Arabia did not hit targets in Yemen.”
The prospect of violence spilling over from its southern neighbor has troubled the Saudi kingdom for years. Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, is attracting militants from Al Qaeda who seek to overthrow the government and launch attacks across the Middle East, U.S. officials say. The Saudis fear that Al Qaeda elements will exploit Yemen’s instability to infiltrate the kingdom and attack government targets and oil installations.
In August, a Saudi militant living in Yemen entered the kingdom and, armed with hidden explosives, blew himself up at a palace reception. The attack lightly wounded Muhammad bin Nayef, a member of the Saudi royal family and the country’s top counter-terrorism official. On Tuesday, militants believed to be linked to Al Qaeda ambushed and killed two Yemeni police chiefs and three guards.
At least 40 rebels are reported to have been killed in the Saudi airstrikes, which were launched after insurgents crossed into the kingdom Tuesday and killed a Saudi security officer and wounded 11 others in a raid near Jebel Dukhan. Yemen’s rugged northern region along the Saudi border is home to tribes and clans that largely live beyond the reach of the government.
The Houthi insurgents belong to the Shiite Muslim Zaidi sect, which ruled Yemen for centuries until the 1962 national revolution.
The Yemeni government began the Operation Scorched Earth offensive against the rebels in August. Fighting has been steady for months, and tens of thousands have fled their homes for displacement camps. The government has blocked most news agencies from reaching the areas of heaviest bloodshed.
The insurgency has broader regional implications. The Yemeni government asserts that Shiite Iran is aiding the Houthis as a means of broadening its influence. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is an ally of Sunni Muslim-controlled Saudi Arabia, which has criticized Iran’s support for the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
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