Saudi Arabia in Bloody Struggle with Yemeni Rebels

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CAIRO -- Saudi Arabia's latest announcement of the death toll in its two-month old battle with Yemeni rebels along the border is a stark reminder of the ferocity of the fighting in this remote part of the Arabian peninsula, even as the kingdom tries to use air strikes and artillery to minimize casualties.

On Tuesday, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi assistant defense minister, said clashes with Yemeni rebels have killed 82 Saudis and left 21 missing, in one of his regular briefings on the fighting since his forces went on the offensive on Nov. 5.

Yemen's Hawthi rebels have been battling their own government since 2004 over neglect and discrimination, but when they crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and killed two border guards in November, Saudi Arabia's well-funded, but untested military joined the fray.

Arab diplomats, speaking from the Saudi capital Riyadh, said Saudi troops are moving slowly in their two-month campaign against the rebels to establish a six-mile deep buffer zone on both sides of the border.

"The Yemeni rebels are putting up a fierce resistance and the war is showing no signs of abating," one of the Arab diplomats said, in an assessment seconded by the other. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their jobs.

The rebels have gained a reputation for being wily adversaries taking full advantage of the rugged mountainous terrain of their homes in northern Yemen. They have been likened to ghosts by the Yemeni soldiers who have fought them for the past five years.

The Saudi military has been following tactics familiar to those once used by the overstretched U.S. forces in Afghanistan, relying on artillery salvos and air power to defeat the rebel positions without risking its soldiers.

But to create their buffer zone, they need to move in ground troops and it is these that have been ambushed by the Hawthi fighters hiding in trenches and caves in guerrilla style attacks along the steep mountain sides and narrow trials.

"This might seems a small number of casualties in another war, but it's huge for the Saudis," said military expert Mohammed Abdel Salam about the casualty toll.

The head of the Regional Security Program at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies noted that this is the first major war fought solely by the Saudi army, which, while armed with the latest technology money can buy, such as Apache helicopter gunships and F-15 jet fighter, has little actual combat experience.

Abdel Barri Tahir, a Yemeni analyst, said part of the Saudi difficulty is that they are not used to fighting a guerrilla war.

"The Hawthis might not be able to achieve victory, but certainly they won't be defeated," he said, likening their struggle to the American experience in Vietnam and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

"A guerrilla war is a war of the jinn," he said referring to the desert spirits of Arab legend. "Can you defeat a jinn?"

Bin Sultan said in a briefing Tuesday for "Operation Blow to the Head" that the Hawthi fighters had been crossing the border in groups of 100-200, but in recent weeks that number has fallen sharply. The rebels took hundreds of casualties when they failed to retake a border village held by Saudi forces.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil supplier, has used its military only once before since the kingdom was established in 1932. In 1991, Saudi troops played a token role in the U.S.-led effort to Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, has been in the limelight since a Yemen-based wing of al-Qaida said it was behind a failed Dec. 25 plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear al-Qaida will take advantage of Yemen's many internal struggles to build a solid base of operations there from which it can threaten the whole peninsula.