Yemeni forces kill 19 Shi'ite rebels, arrest 25

Yemeni forces killed 19 rebels in a military operation to rid a northern town of Shi'ite rebel hideouts, and the insurgents said their civilian population was the target of a deliberate campaign of deadly violence.

Security forces mounted house-to-house sweeps in the old city of Saada, where rebels from the Houthi tribe had been taking refuge in homes, Yemen's Interior Ministry said on its website. Some 25 were arrested, it said.

It did not say if there were any civilian casualties.

The operation, dubbed "Blow to the Head", was continuing against rebels who have fought Yemen's government since 2004, complaining of social, economic and religious marginalisation. The government did not say when the sweeps began.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, came to the foreground of U.S.-led efforts to battle militancy after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a failed December 25 plot to bomb a US plane.

As well as its fight against the Shi'ite rebels, the Yemeni government also faces separatist sentiment in the south and is fighting a resurgent al Qaeda in multiple provinces. The Shi'ite revolt drew in Saudi Arabia after a cross-border rebel raid into the world's biggest oil exporter in November.

"The 'Blow to the Head' operation to cleanse the old city of Saada of nests of Houthis that had occupied houses of a number of citizens in the city achieved all of its goals of annihilating these destructive dens of Houthi rebel gangs," the ministry said.

Yemeni rebels from the minority Shi'ite Zaidi sect have said they were the target of a series of Saudi air strikes in recent days, and that their positions were also frequently pounded by mortars by Yemeni forces.

The leader of the rebels accused their enemies, whom they did not name, of intentionally targeting civilians as a means of pressing for an end to their fight.

"It is clear, brothers, that the enemies made the targeting civilians a basic strategy, and are trying through that to pressure us because they know our humanity and morals and our pain for our civilians," rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said.

He cited a series of strikes in December that he said killed more than 50 women and children, and said civilians had been attacked previously in their homes, markets and mosques by US, Saudi and Yemeni planes in what he termed a "joint aggression".

The conflict in Yemen's mountainous north has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.

"I call on you again to stop targeting civilians and stop your crimes against women and children. If you have a desire or intent to fight us ... then fight us with honour so as to retain a minimum of your humanity," Houthi said in a statement posted on a rebel website.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen's instability to spread its operations to the neighbouring kingdom and beyond. Yemen itself produces a small amount of oil.

Placed strategically on the Arabian Peninsula's southern rim, Yemen has shrinking oil reserves and faces a water crisis. Its population of 23 million is expected to double in the next 20 years.

 

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