- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

ADEN, Yemen — About 2,000 troops backed by helicopters and artillery battled followers of an anti-U.S. leader in Yemen’s northern mountains yesterday in a new offensive aimed at putting down a six-week rebellion. Fighting in the past two days killed 50 soldiers and rebels.

The offensive targets supporters of Sheik Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houti, a Shi’ite Muslim cleric regarded by the government as an outlaw, whose forces are holed up in the Jabal Maraan Mountains outside the town of Sa’dah, 125 miles northwest of the capital, San’a.

Long-simmering tension between the government and Sheik al-Houti, who leads an armed group called the Believing Youth, erupted into conflict June 21 when security forces tried to arrest his supporters in Sa’dah. More than 500 soldiers and rebels have been killed since the conflict began.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose government has supported the U.S.-led war on terrorism and has received American military assistance, ordered a temporary halt to military operations against Sheik al-Houti’s forces to give mediators a chance. But the fighting continued.

Heavy artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships and fighter jets are backing Yemeni troops in the campaign launched late Tuesday, and the government also has recruited armed tribesmen from elsewhere to fight Sheik al-Houti’s followers, government officials said.

“We’ve been ordered to end the standoff once and for all,” an official said yesterday.

Tribal elders said the fighting had killed about 50 people and wounded dozens. They said most of the casualties were soldiers.

Sheik al-Houti, a one-time political aspirant in Yemen, has wide religious and tribal backing in this impoverished country and has long opposed U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs and Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

His fierce anti-U.S. positions — fomented through mosque speeches and demonstrations — have caused problems for Yemen’s government.

The government has offered a $55,000 reward for the capture of Sheik al-Houti, accusing him of sedition, attacking government buildings and security forces, forming an illegal armed group and inciting people not to pay taxes.

In a statement posted on an Internet site yesterday, a previously unknown Islamist group claiming links to al Qaeda expressed solidarity with Sheik al-Houti and condemned Yemen’s government because “they opened the country of Muslims to the crusader forces.”

The group gave its name as Tawhid wa al-Hijra, which means Monotheism and Flight — a reference to the departure of Islam’s 7th century prophet, Muhammad, to Mecca with his followers and going to Medina to escape persecution.

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