Saudi Arabia Claims Victory Over Yemeni Rebels

Saudi Arabia is declaring victory in its three month war against tribal rebels in neighboring Yemen. The rebels say they have withdrawn from Saudi territory and they've offered a ceasefire. But gunfire and mortar shelling are still audible from the border, apparently from ongoing battles between the rebels and Yemeni government forces.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Throughout today's program we're reporting on President Obama's first State of the Union speech. The president urged his fellow Democrats to solve problems and pass a health care bill, not to, quote, "run for the hills." He also pressed Republicans to take responsibility.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The president also said his administration intensified the fight against al-Qaida, and we're going next to a battlefield of that fight, the Arabian Peninsula. We'll start in Saudi Arabia, where a complicated conflict is underway. The Saudi military has been fighting rebels who spilled over the border from neighboring Yemen. The Saudis now say they've driven these rebels, known as the Houthis, from their territory.

The Saudis recently took journalists to the border area, including Kelly McEvers.

(Soundbite of airplane)

KELLY MCEVERS: We are heading down toward Yemen on a Saudi military plane. Saudi officials repeatedly have claimed that they've expelled the rebels from a so-called buffer zone along the rugged border that the two countries share, yet the body count has continued to rise on both sides.

Saudis say that they'll make an announcement today about the offer for a truce that the Houthis have made.

Once the plane lands, reporters are herded into four-wheel drive trucks. We pass checkpoints, military encampments, a field hospital and abandoned villages that were evacuated back in November when Saudi Arabia joined the conflict. Now thousands of villagers live in a sprawling tent camp.

Our trucks head up a road that looks like it's been freshly cut into a steep mountain. Sniper nests have been carved out of the rock and each peak is manned by an armed lookout. Up top, standing under a battered Saudi flag, Major General Said al-Gamdi(ph) says the Houthis controlled this strategic mountain, known as Gebel Doud(ph), up to two weeks ago. But now the Saudis have retaken it.

Major General SAID AL-GAMDI (Saudi Army): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Here's Gamdi's interpreter.

Gen. AL-GAMDI: (Through translator) Our forces, they have sealed the roads and they cut of the enemy supplies.

MCEVERS: Gamdi points down the mountain toward what's left of a village he says the Houthis had occupied.

Gen. AL-GAMDI: (Through translator) That area (unintelligible) they were buried in their places.

MCEVERS: When asked about the Houthi's offer earlier this week to withdraw in exchange for a ceasefire, Gamdi says there was no withdrawal - only defeat.

Unidentified Man: They are justifying, they are justifying their weaknesses.

MCEVERS: But despite the claims on both sides that the Houthis are now gone from Saudi territory, Captain Ahmed Mohammed Aswani(ph) says he recently fired on a Houthi sniper on this side of the border. How recently, a reporter asks.

Captain AHMED Mohammed ASWANI (Saudi Army): (Through translator) Last night.

Unidentified Man #1 (Reporter): What, last night?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: But how do they see them at night?

Unidentified Man #2: Night vision.

MCEVERS: Aswani says the Houthis operate almost exclusively on foot and hide out in caves.

(Soundbite of explosions)

MCEVERS: And just across the border, the gunfire and shelling continues.

Because reporters have been kept out of the battle zone all this time, it's difficult to verify exactly why the Saudis entered this conflict in the first place. The Houthis say they crossed into Saudi territory late last year because the Saudis were bombing them inside Yemen. The Saudis deny this. They say they only attack the Houthis on Saudi soil, after the Houthis killed Saudi border guards.

Back down the mountain, Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan has arrived to inspect the troops. He says the Houthis will have to meet certain conditions before the Saudis agree to a full ceasefire.

Mr. PRINCE KHALED BIN SULTAN (Deputy Defense Minister, Saudi Arabia): If they want to prove what they say they have to draw even the snipers, because every sniper there is, that means an attack in the Saudi soil.

MCEVERS: And he said they have to return six Saudis who officials say are being held prisoner. Prince Khaled also offered a third condition, aimed not at the Houthis but the Yemeni government.

Mr. SULTAN: I hope that, you know, the Yemeni armed forces would be as a buffer zone in the border.

MCEVERS: Prince Khaled said the issue is now an internal problem for the government of Yemen. He spoke in front of a parade formation of hundreds of infantry men and paratroopers ringed by heavy and light mobile artillery.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

MCEVERS: Afterward, soldiers celebrated what might be the end of a three-month-long conflict, but then they return to formation, moved back to their tents for the night. God willing, one commander said, we'll stay here as long as we're needed.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers.

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