Yemen Expands Offensive Against Shiite Rebels

Yemen widened a military offensive against Shiite rebels in the country's north on Saturday, blasting the fighters' positions with artillery and airstrikes, a local government official said.

The fighting took place in an area closer to the capital city, San'a, than other battles over the past several days and killed 17 rebels and six government troops, said the official in Amran province.

The government began the offensive Tuesday with bombing raids on
several districts of the northern Saada province, bordering Saudi
Arabia, after rebels claimed they had wrested more control of the
area from government troops.

The rebellion began in 2004 and is led by Shiite militants who say the government is corrupt and too closely allied with the West.

The escalation over the past week is raising fears in Yemen's neighbor Saudi Arabia and in the U.S. because increased lawlessness could provide cover for al-Qaida militants who have sought sanctuary in the impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Yemen has allied with the U.S. in its fight against terror, but
the government has little authority in the mountainous areas outside the major cities.

The country, which is the ancestral birthplace of Osama bin Laden, is also facing a growing separatist movement in the south.

The local official who reported Saturday's fighting spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to reporters.

The new fighting is centered on the district of Harf Sofiyan, which is believed to be a significant base for the Shiite rebels. It is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of San'a.

The fighting throughout the north has forced thousands of civilians to leave their homes over the past week, the local government official said.

Rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Hawthi on Saturday described the new round of government attacks as "a crime that is annihilating civilians." He denied that any of his followers have been killed in the past week.

Several opposition parties and human rights organizations appealed to the government on Saturday to halt its operations and condemned an airstrike on Wednesday that hit a marketplace in the town of Haydan in Saada province, killing several civilians.

"It is a must that we find a serious solution to end the turmoil ... and follow the peace option rather than the military actions that the past five years have proved are useless," said lawmaker Abdel Kareem Jadban, of Saada province.

He called on rebel leader Abdel Malak al-Hawthi to recognize the government's authority and for the government to release rebel detainees.

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