Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister Wednesday rejected Yemeni rebel claims that they had voluntarily withdrawn from Saudi territory, saying they had “been forced out” by the Saudi military.
Prince Khaled bin Sultan said the border area had been “cleansed” of Yemeni rebel positions, but that snipers continued to infiltrate and attack Saudi troops.
The prince’s remarks were the first official Saudi response to a statement Monday from the Yemeni rebel leader saying that his forces had withdrawn from Saudi territory and were offering a cease-fire in the almost three-month-old conflict.
Prince Khaled spoke to reporters after reviewing a parade formation of several hundred Saudi infantry, paratroopers and artillerymen in a dusty, open field several miles from the Yemen-Saudi border near the town of Kouba in the southern province of Jizan.
Earlier, journalists were driven to the top of Mt. Doud, a peak about a mile from the border that was seized by the rebels in mid-November and retaken by the Saudis a week ago, according to a senior Saudi military officer.
Exploding mortars and occasional gunshots could be heard in the distance along the border, and Saudi military officers said that was fighting between Yemeni forces and the rebels, known as Houthis.
Today’s day-long visit to the border area was the first one organized by the Saudi government that included foreign press since the conflict broke out in early November. The Yemeni government has also restricted journalists’ access to the fighting.
As a result, claims by both sides have been almost impossible to verify. While the Houthis say that the Saudis have bombed their positions inside Yemen, the Saudis assert that they have not crossed the border and are merely trying to oust invaders.
Asked why Houthi rebels had apparently challenged the Saudi military by seizing Saudi territory, Prince Khaled said: "I don't know…. Your guess is better than mine."
Both the truce offer from Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and the trip for reporters to the border may have been intended to influence a meeting of top Western and Arab officials Wednesday in London to discuss options for assisting Yemen. Besides the Houthi rebellion, the impoverished state is also contending with a secessionist movement and an assertive Al Qaeda network.
Prince Khaled, who has been directing the Saudi military campaign, said that so far 109 Saudi personnel - soldiers and border guards - had been killed in the conflict, including seven "in the last several days.”
Another six are missing, four of whom are believed to be held prisoner by the rebels, he added. The Saudis, he said, are holding 1,500 prisoners, though only 300 to 400 of those are rebel fighters. The rest are smugglers, he added.
Before answering questions, Prince Khaled stood in the back of a Landcruiser that drove slowly along the three-side formation of his troops, who had been waiting several hours to see their commander. Lines of mobile heavy and light artillery were parked behind the soldiers.
The prince repeatedly referred to the Houthi rebellion as “an internal problem” for Yemen, “which I am sure the Yemeni government can deal with.” If the rebels completely withdraw, return the Saudi prisoners and stop sending in snipers, then “we will stop bombing them.”
The military officer stopped short of openly accusing Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels in their fight against the Saudis. Noting that the rebels had large amounts of weapons, he said they could not have acquired them all “by themselves.”
Mt. Doud, which the Saudis said they retook from the rebels a week ago, offers wide vistas of the surrounding terrain, a mix of sparse scrub and mountains. Almost every peak in the area appeared to have a Saudi lookout.
A new dirt road had been ploughed to the top of the mountain, where walls made of sandbags surrounded a viewing site for Saudi soldiers. Saudi flags flapped in the wind. Underfoot, the ground was strewn with shell casings.
Maj. Gen. Saeed al Ghamdi, commander of the First Paratrooper Brigade, said that now that Mt. Doud has been retaken “the war is done. Now we can say that the enemy...were repelled, the infiltrators were destroyed, and pulverized in their caves.”