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Yemen rebels say Saudi air raids kill 54

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni Shi’ite Muslim rebels said Saudi air attacks on northern Yemen killed 54 people on Sunday, many of them women and children.

Protesters shout slogans as they march on a street in the southern Yemeni town of Radfan December 19, 2009 to denounce Thursday's government military operation which the authorities said killed about 30 al Qaeda militants. REUTERS/Stringer

The rebels, who often report attacks by Yemeni and Saudi fighter planes, said on their website that the strikes destroyed five houses in the town of Razeh, in mountainous Saada province where they are based.

The report could not be verified as aid workers and media have limited access to the conflict zones, and there was no immediate Saudi comment. Yemeni officials have previously denied that Saudi planes had carried out attacks on Yemen’s territory.

Last Sunday, the rebels said at least 70 people were killed in a Saudi air raid on a market in Razeh. That attack could not be confirmed either.

Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and the world’s largest oil exporter, fears the growing instability in neighboring Yemen could turn into a major security threat for the kingdom by allowing al Qaeda to gain a stronger foothold in the impoverished country.

Saudi Arabia began attacking Yemen’s Shi’ite Muslim rebels, known as the Houthis, in early November after the rebels staged a cross-border incursion and killed two Saudi border guards.

The rebels, who launched a rebellion against the Yemeni government in 2004, belong to the minority Zaidi sect of Shi’ism, and complain of social, economic and religious marginalization. Both the rebels and the government deny their aims are sectarian.

A state-run website said rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi was seriously wounded in a government attack which also killed a rebel military commander.

The rebels did not directly comment on the report, but cautioned on their website against believing “imaginary victories which the regime’s media (report) from time to time.”

Besides fighting Shi’ite rebels in the north, Yemen faces increasing unrest and separatist sentiment in the south and growing activity by al Qaeda’s regional wing.

Writing by Firouz Sedarat in Dubai, editing by Tim Pearce