Government forces bombed Shiite rebels in northern Yemen on Wednesday, killing dozens and escalating a conflict along the Saudi border that could further destabilize the US-allied country as it faces a resurgent threat from al-Qaeda.
The offensive, which started late on Tuesday, followed claims by local officials and rebels that they had seized more of northern Saada Province from government troops. A high-level security committee, headed by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, promised to crush the rebels “with an iron-fist.”
A rebel spokesman said 15 civilians died in an air strike on Wednesday at an outdoor market near the town of Haydan in Saada. A local government official said 20 rebels were killed. The discrepancy in the toll could not immediately be reconciled. A local Health Ministry official said 12 others died in fighting across Saada and 51 were injured. Local officials and the rebels said hundreds have fled the clashes.
The officials in Saada spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The five-year-old rebellion in Saada, which borders predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, pits Shiite Muslims against Yemen’s Sunni-led government. The impoverished Arabian peninsula country is already battling a separate uprising to the south and a resurgent al-Qaeda.
The government exerts little authority outside the cities and has tried repeatedly to suppress the Saada rebels, with little success.
The stability of Yemen — the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden — is a key concern for both Saudi Arabia and the US.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment, said the Saada fighting “right next door to the world’s biggest oil producer” compounds the region’s security threat and underscores Yemen’s weaknesses.
Saudi Arabia fears the conflict could make its own disgruntled Shiite tribes more restive.
Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said the bombing culminated in the strike on Haydan. He said some missiles fell in residential areas, killing civilians and destroying homes.
“We remind the authorities that we are totally ready to confront their aggression and their loss will be more than previous rounds,” Abdel-Salam said in a statement.
A rebel leader, Saleh Habra, said only one fighter was killed in the last four days of fighting. He accused the government of targeting villagers in the widened offensive.
The Shiite rebels complain the government ignores their needs and has allowed Wahhabis — people adhering to an ultraconservative version of Sunni Islam found in neighboring Saudi Arabia — too strong of a voice in the country. The Wahhabis, who consider Shiites to be heretics, gained influence after helping the Yemeni government win the 1994 civil war with the secessionist south.
The UN refugee agency official in northern Yemen, Claire Bourgeois, said the organization was looking to assist at least 1,500 families displaced in the area of Malahidh, where some of the worst fighting took place on Wednesday.
“We fear the numbers could be much higher, many people fled their homes in an emergency, so we are assuming they didn’t take necessities with them,” she said.
UN official Lina al-Mujahed said more than 230 families had arrived in the provincial capital after traveling hundreds of kilometers. Al-Mujahed said food and tents had been distributed to half of them.
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