22 Dec 2009 21:24:49 GMT
* Saudi says 73 soldiers killed, war nearing end
* Rebels say war continuing, blame Saudi Arabia (Adds rebel spokesman, paragraphs 5-7)
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Dec 22 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday at least 73 of its troops had been killed in fighting against Yemeni rebels since November, but the war was nearly over. “Major operations in the border area have almost entirely ended. There are still incursions, and the use of snipers but we are constantly prepared to confront them,” Prince Khaled bin Sultan, assistant minister of defence, said on state television.
“There were 73 martyrs and 26 missing,” he said, adding that 12 of the missing were believed to be dead but their bodies had not been recovered. Saudi Arabia launched its assault against Yemen’s Shi’ite Muslim rebels, known as Houthis, in the area near its border with Yemen last month after the insurgents staged a cross-border incursion that killed two Saudi border guards. A rebel spokesman said the war was far from over.
“This was a confession that there is a real war going on … for which the Saudi regime carries the responsibility,” said rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam, accusing the Saudi air force of attacking civilian targets.
“Our fighters have gained a lot of experience over the years,” he told Al Jazeera television by telephone, declining to give details of insurgent casualties.
The rebels said on their website earlier that Saudi warplanes and helicopters had launched 39 raids against targets in northern Yemen since late Monday.
The West and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will take advantage of the Yemeni government’s focus on the Shi’ite rebellion in the north and rising secessionist sentiment in the south to spread its operations to the kingdom, the world’s top oil exporter. Military analysts say Saudi Arabia may face a long mountain war with the rebels despite its advanced weaponry because it has little experience in fighting a guerrillas. [ID:nGEE5B504O] The Houthis, who began their rebellion in 2004, belong to the Zaidi sect of minority Shi’ite Islam, and complain of social, economic and religious marginalisation by the Yemeni government. Both sides deny their aims are sectarian. Saudi media frequently mention an al Qaeda presence among the Houthis and Yemen sees Iran’s hand behind the rebels. Iran denies involvement and has called for Yemen’s government to end the fighting through negotiations. 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. (Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Jon Hemming/David Stamp)