Saudis claim key mountain win over Yemeni rebels

Sat Nov 28, 2009 5:20pm EST

* Saudi forces control peak near Yemen border - minister

* Forces 'destroying all infiltrators"



MECCA, Saudi Arabia, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Saturday it had taken control of a strategic mountain on the Saudi side of the border with Yemen, clearing the area of Yemeni Shi'ite rebels.

"The (Saudi) forces have taken control of Jabal (Mount) al-Dood ... These men have cleared this area," Defense and Aviation Assistant Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan told al-Ekhbariya Television, describing the peak as strategically important.

He was shown speaking at what appeared to be an area near the frontline, and sounds of artillery fire could be heard.

"Where we are now is less than 3 km (2 miles) away from the border (with Yemen) ... We are within our borders .. The (Saudi) forces are destroying all infiltrators," Prince Khaled said. "We try to keep losses at a minimum ... and not be drawn into a war in the mountains."

Saudi Arabia started fighting Yemeni Shi'ite rebels -- known as Houthis -- earlier this month after it announced that they had killed two border guards in a cross-border incursion.

A Yemeni military official told Reuters that Yemeni forces and Houthi rebels waged pitched battles on the outskirts of the northern city of Saada on Saturday after regular troops thwarted an attempt by the insurgents to enter the city. [nGEE5AR05Y]

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, fears growing instability in Yemen could turn into a major security threat by allowing al Qaeda to gain a stronger foothold in the poverty-stricken country.

The Houthis belong to the Zaidi sect of minority Shi'ite Islam, and complain of social, economic and religious marginalisation by the 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. (Writing by Souhail Karam; Editing by Mark Trevelyan) ((riyadh.newsroom@thomsonreuters.com; +966 1 463 2603))

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