Yemen's army steps up pressure on Shiite rebels

Rebels loose strongholds after three-week-long offensive

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Yemen's army continued a near three-week-long offensive on Shiite northern rebels on Saturday as officials said the army had inflicted heavy losses on their strongholds in Saada region and surrounding areas.

Yemen's air force has bombarded Zaidi rebels' positions in al-Talh, in Saada, while troops destroyed other positions and arms caches in the district of Malaheez, also in Saada, a military spokesman told Saba state news agency.

Television footage showed warplanes striking targets in the rugged mountains and salvos of rockets being fired by a line of launchers.

The Zaidi rebels -- also known as Huthis -- meanwhile claimed in a statement late Friday that warplanes have been targeting civilian neighborhoods and camps of displaced people in Saada, which is near the Saudi border.

It said that the rebels have stopped troops from advancing in several areas, including Malaheez, and Sufyan district in neighboring Imran province.

Rebels also claimed capturing an undetermined number of soldiers and destroying two tanks in an attack on an army point in Maqash, near the city of Saada.

The military spokesman claimed that the army killed several rebels in the same clash in Maqash, adding to confusion about the developments on the ground amid a lack of independent sources of information.

"Operation Scorched Earth"

The army's "Operation Scorched Earth" has entered its 18th day. There are no reliable sources on the numbers of casualties, but rebels say dozens of civilians have been killed.

Rebels have also alleged neighboring Saudi Arabia has been sending warplanes to aid Yemeni troops, a claim ridiculed by the Yemeni government which accuses Shiite Iran of backing the rebels.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed on Thursday to crush the rebellion within weeks.

The government had offered a six-point plan to end the fighting but the rebels dismissed the offer, recalling that a Qatari-brokered peace deal reached in June 2007 had never been implemented.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week that around 35,000 people have been displaced by the clashes.

An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Zaidis are a minority in mainly Sunni Yemen but form the majority community in the north and want to establish anew the imamate overthrown in a 1962 coup.

Thousands of people have been killed since the conflict first erupted in 2004.