SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni forces clashed with Shi’ite rebels, killing 11 in a country where Washington and Riyadh fear al Qaeda may be gaining a stronger foothold, and Yemen’s president reiterated a call to rebels to end the violence.
“Eleven terrorists were killed and others were wounded in widespread combing operations and strikes by military and security units on Thursday against gatherings of Houthi terrorists in a number of areas,” a government source told Reuters on Friday.
The 26 September news website, quoting an unnamed source, said Yemeni forces had destroyed a “terrorist den” in the northern Saada region on Thursday.
Rebels from the minority Shi’ite Zaidi sect in northern Yemen rebelled against the government in 2004, complaining of social, economic and religious marginalization.
The conflict, which has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands, drew in neighboring Saudi Arabia in November when rebels staged a cross-border incursion into the world’s biggest oil exporter.
Yemen, also facing separatist sentiment in the south, was thrown into focus when al Qaeda’s regional wing said it was behind an attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day.
The bomb attempt, by a Nigerian who said he had received training and equipment in Yemen, was a reminder of U.S. and Saudi fears that al Qaeda will exploit instability in the poor Arab country to turn Yemen into a launchpad for more attacks.
Thursday’s strikes destroyed a group of rebel vehicles near the town of Saada, and flames were seen rising from the area, the website said. A car carrying ammunition was destroyed.
The government source said several of the rebels were killed by sniper fire and others died when a bomb exploded prematurely. Rebels said a child was also killed in a Saudi airstrike.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in a New Year message published in a government newspaper, called on northern rebels and southern separatists to abandon violence and urged anyone tempted by al Qaeda to reconsider.
“The time has come to lay down your weapons, to steer clear of the violence and the terror and evil acts so as to save your souls and be good citizens in your society,” Saleh wrote in al-Thawra.
He also called again on northern rebels to accept a ceasefire, release prisoners, return stolen civilian and military materials and agree to stop attacks on Saudi territory.
“If these elements accept the call for peace, the state will extend its hand for peace,” Saleh said.
The northern rebels, who often report attacks by Yemeni and Saudi warplanes, said in an emailed statement they had repulsed several advances by Saudi troops on their positions near the Yemen-Saudi border, killing an unspecified number of soldiers and blowing up a Saudi tank and an armored vehicle.
“The Saudi army tried for a second time to infiltrate into a northwest village without fire cover, and they were detected and repelled,” the rebels said.
They said rebels had also attacked 10 Saudi soldiers in a mountainous area near the border, killing some while others fled, and that Saudis had pounded rebel positions with rockets.
Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Ibrahim al-Malek said he doubted the rebel claim: “If it was true, we would have issued a statement about it. That is why I highly doubt it is true.”
Riyadh is an ally of Yemen but denies giving it military aid, saying it only defends its own territory against the rebels.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Souhail Karam in Riyadh; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; editing by Tim Pearce