Yemen attacks northern rebels, vows "iron fist"
(Updates with government statement, paragraphs 6-7)
SANAA, Aug 11 (Reuters) - Yemeni troops and fighter aircraft launched a broad offensive against Shi'ite rebels in the north on Tuesday, rebels and tribal sources said, and the government said it would strike with an "iron fist".
Government forces fired missiles at the headquarters of rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in mountainous Saada province, and other positions held by rebels also came under attack, tribal sources and rebels told Reuters.
Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, has been battling a Shi'ite Muslim rebellion, a wave of al Qaeda attacks and rising secessionist sentiment in the south.
The unrest has raised Western fears that it could become a haven for Islamic militants on the border with Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter.
The offensive began a day after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said renewed fighting in the north showed the rebels had no intention of sticking to a government peace plan announced a year ago.
"The state will strike these elements ... with an iron fist until they surrender themselves to justice," the top Yemeni security body said, accusing rebels of crimes including destroying homes and farms and blocking food distribution.
"The state is obliged to protect citizens and their property," the Supreme Security Committee said in a statement carried by state media, without directly referring to any offensive.
Officials say the rebels, who belong to the Zaydi branch of Shi'ite Islam, want to restore a form of clerical rule prevalent in Yemen until the 1960s.
The rebels, who want to Zaydi schools and oppose the government's alliance with the United States, say they are defending their villages against government oppression.
The majority of Yemen's 19 million population are Sunni Muslims, and most of the rest are Zaydis.
In July 2008, Saleh said four years of intermittent fighting against Shi'ite rebels in the north had ended and dialogue should replace combat. Despite his attempts to start talks, sporadic fighting continued and has intensified in recent weeks. (Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; writing by Firouz Sedarat; editing by Tim Pearce)
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