JEDDAH // Saudi forces regained control of a mountain straddling the border with Yemen and cleared it of al Houthi fighters yesterday, five days after launching an offensive against the Yemeni rebels in which three Saudi soldiers have died. Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the assistant defence secretary, said four soldiers were missing and that Saudi troops were still dealing with infiltrators in other spots along the frontier.
Speaking near the front in Jizan province, Prince Khaled said Saudi forces had not entered northern Yemen. He did not comment on rebel casualties. "We are dealing with infiltrators and gangs. All that they seized, including Dukhan mountain, are now under our control, although there is infiltration in some locations," Prince Khaled was quoted as telling reporters after visiting the region. Saudi Arabia announced that none of its missing soldiers were captured by al Houthi rebels who infiltrated the country last week, while Saudi forces were able to capture more than 150 Shiite fighters as of yesterday.
Saudi Arabia's air force fired missiles "intensively" at Yemeni border villages yesterday, the al Houthi rebels said in an e-mailed statement. Publicly, Saudi officials say their military action has been limited to areas inside its own borders, targeting fighters who have crossed into its territory. But Yemeni rebels, military officials and Arab diplomats say the Saudi air and artillery strikes began to hit deep inside northern Yemen on Thursday.
Saudi Arabia began its military campaign in the border region in the southern Jizan province on Wednesday, one day after the Yemeni insurgents seized territory and killed a Saudi border guard. Riyadh unleashed F-15 and Tornado jets against rebel positions around the massive Jabal Dukhan, a mountain that soars 2,000 metres out of the coastal plain on the border of Jizan province. Ground troops and heavy long-range artillery lined the sides of the main road to the frontier town of al Khubah at the foot of the mountain on Saturday as soldiers patrolled fields and inspected vehicles for rebel fighters.
Saudis said some rebels had infiltrated into the country disguised as women in abayas. According to Ahmad al Zailai, a reporter in the Jabal Dukhan area, Saudi forces killed 23 Houthi infiltrators yesterday. The rebels for their part said that besides capturing several Saudi soldiers, they had downed a Yemeni government aircraft. "Our anti-aircraft batteries have shot down a military aircraft that was bombing the village of Razeh", close to the Saudi border, Mohammad Abdessalam, a spokesman for the rebels, said.
A military source in Sana'a acknowledged that a Russian Sukhoi bomber had crashed, but said it was because of "mechanical problems". It is the third combat aircraft the rebels claim to have downed since the launch of the government offensive against them on August 11. Yemen says all of the incidents were due to mechanical reasons. The humanitarian situation in the war-affected areas on both sides of the border is worsening. Hundreds of Saudis were forcibly made to leave their land while hundreds more Yemeni refugees are seeking shelter in the kingdom.
Saudi forces are now evacuating the combat areas of hundreds of local peasants and moving them to camps, but housing them in the camps is becoming difficult because hundreds of Yemeni farmers are seeking shelter there as well. "People are flocking in the hundreds and the situation is becoming difficult in camps as Saudi forces gave locals [around Jabal Dukhan] 12 hours to evacuate all their lands today," Mr al Zailai said. "There are more cattle than humans in the camps as farmers fled with their life savings.
"Women are sitting on roads crying for the loss of their homes and it is a real tragedy as those people have never experienced such a situation before." The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, on Saturday insisted he would "never stop this war, no matter how high the financial and human cost". "Columns of martyrs from among our best officers and soldiers and our civilians are being killed each day," he said.
The Yemeni army has not provided any toll for the number of soldiers killed in the fighting, which has raged in and around Sa'ada, but it has killed hundreds of people, according to some estimates. Meanwhile, the United Nations has said 55,000 people have fled their homes since the army began its offensive in August. The authorities accuse the al Houthis, who are from the Zaidi Shiite sect, of seeking to reinstate the imamate, a form of clerical rule that ended in a republication revolution in 1962, and of being backed by Shiite Iran.
The rebels deny both claims, and in turn have accused the government in Sana'a of bringing in Saudi warplanes to support the army. They claim that the needs of their communities are ignored by a Yemeni government that is increasingly allied with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, who consider Shiites heretics. Mr Saleh, the president, is a Zaidi. On October 28, officials in Yemen said five Iranians had been arrested on a boat loaded with weapons alleged to be destined for the rebels. Iran denied that an Iranian vessel was involved.
But the authorities in Sana'a remain cautious when it comes to openly accusing the Islamic republic of involvement in the fighting, and officials have said they are still investigating whether Tehran has any ties to the rebellion. Saudi Arabia has a 1,500km border with Yemen, the poorest Arab country, where al Qa'eda has established bases that it has used as a launching pad for cross-border attacks on Saudi targets.
The fighting risks dragging the world's largest oil exporter into a prolonged conflict, said Eurasia Group, political risk consultants in New York. "Saudi Arabia has been covertly aiding Sana'a in its fight against the Houthis for much of the year, but now that Saudi Arabia is escalating the fighting, the danger of greater instability in Yemen is rising," Eurasia Group said in an e- mailed commentary. "Riyadh will find that it cannot easily withdraw from Yemen once it becomes too deeply involved."
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press and Bloomberg