SANAA: Saudi Arabia has launched a large military incursion across the border into northern Yemen, using fighter jets and artillery bombardments to try to end a Shia rebellion inside its troubled southern neighbor, Arab diplomats and the rebels said Thursday.
The northern rebels, known as Hawthis, have been battling Yemeni government forces intensively over the past few months in the latest flare-up of a sporadic conflict that has lasted five years.
The Hawthis are based in northern Saada province, which borders Saudi Arabia.
Saudi jets dropped bombs on a crowded areas including local market in the northern province of Saada, Hawthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam told The Associated Press. They (Saudis) claim they are targeting Al-Hawthis, but regrettably they are killing civilians like the government does, he added.
The attacks were followed by hundreds of shells from the border, Abdel-Salam said.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
Two Arab diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP Saudi Tornado and F-15 warplanes have been bombarding targets inside Yemen since Wednesday afternoon, inflicting significant casualties on the rebels. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to talks to the media.
They said army units and special forces have been sent to northern Yemen, and that several Saudi towns on the border have been evacuated.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor their Yemeni government allies have confirmed the offensive. But if they do, this would be the first known Saudi incursion across the border in the five years of fighting the rebels.
Saudi Arabia, the world s leading oil exporter, has been increasingly worried about extremism and instability in Yemen that could spill across the border.
The Yemeni government is currently fighting on multiple fronts – the northern rebels and a separatist movement in the south. But the most worrisome is a lingering threat from Al-Qaeda insurgents.
Though the oil-rich kingdom has one of the world s most sophisticated air forces, Saudi has rarely used it.
The US also fears the Yemeni fighting could spill over into Saudi Arabia. It concerned that Yemen, with its weak central government, could become a haven for Al-Qaeda insurgents hiding out in the impoverished nation on the tip of the Arabian peninsula.
State-run Saudi press agency reported Wednesday that some of the Hawthi rebels crossed the border, killed a Saudi soldier and wounded 11 soldiers. A Saudi security official told the agency unidentified gunmen infiltrated from Yemen and attacked security guards patrolling the Mount Dokhan border area on Tuesday. Rebels said that area was among the targets in Thursday s bombings.
The rebels said the Saudi airstrikes hit four areas in their northern stronghold Thursday.
It was not possible to independently verify the reports and throughout the five-year conflict, details of the fighting in the remote mountainous areas have been sketchy.
The Shia rebels complain their needs are ignored by a government that is increasingly allied with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, who consider Shias as heretics.
Over the past couple of months, the rebels claimed that they seized control of a number of strategic Yemeni military posts near the border with Saudi Arabia.