RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Saudi forces have recovered the bodies of 20 soldiers who had been reported missing in fierce battles with Yemeni rebels on the border, the assistant defense minister said Saturday, raising the Saudi death toll in the conflict to 133.
Prince Khaled bin Sultan told reporters the bodies were found after troops cleared the rebels out of areas around Dokhan mountain, a strategic high point in the rugged border region. He said six soldiers are still missing.
Saudi forces entered the conflict with a sweeping offensive against the rebels after they crossed the border on Nov. 5 and killed two Saudi border guards.
The rebels, from the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, have been battling Yemen’s government since June 2004 in a conflict set off by claims that their communities in northern Yemen are neglected. The Zaydis also accuse the government of allying with hard-line Sunni fundamentalists who regard them as heretics.
The Saudis have been relying on artillery and air power against the rebels to try to reduce the number of Saudi casualties, most of which occurred when ground forces attempted to move into areas that were shelled.
The Saudi dead included a senior officer, Lt. Col. Saeed Matuq al-Omari, a paratrooper and a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.
A Saudi general earlier described the war with the poorly armed Yemeni rebels as “close to a guerrilla war.”
On Friday, the rebel leader, Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi, appeared in a video posted on the group’s Web site to disprove Yemeni government claims that he was killed in an attack last month. Al-Hawthi was shown sitting on a chair and speaking into a microphone.
“These claims have no basis in truth and are just an excuse to justify their crimes against civilians,” he said.