RIYADH/SANAA (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia today said again it believes Yemeni Shi'ite rebels have links to the Sunni militant group Al-Qaeda, even though it acknowledged it had found no such evidence in combat.
"We have not noticed it on the battlefield, but it is proven by various bodies that there are contacts and coordination between them, and that they have common interests, which is sabotage," Prince Khaled bin Sultan, assistant minister of defense, said in remarks aired on state television.
He did not specify what that proof was.
The Shi'ite rebels, known as Houthis after the clan name of their leaders, have denied previous such claims that they have ties to the Sunni Muslim militant group.
A schism between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam occurred shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammad and Shi'ites now are often a persecuted minority in much of the Muslim world.
Saudi Arabia launched its assault on the rebels in an area near its border with Yemen in November after the insurgents killed two Saudi border guards in a cross-border incursion.
The United States and Saudi Arabia fear Al-Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen's instability to spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the world's top oil exporter, and beyond.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, came to the foreground of U.S.-led efforts to battle militancy after a Yemen-based wing of Al-Qaeda said it was behind a failed December 25 plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.
Prince Khaled said Saudi forces had found the bodies of 20 soldiers who were among 26 reported missing in the fighting, and the television quoted him as saying four of remaining six had been captured by the rebels.
A Saudi military official, quoted by “Al-Riyadh” newspaper on January 21, put at 113 the death toll of Saudi soldiers in the fighting.
Prince Khaled also denied any Saudi Apache helicopter had been shot down, as claimed by the rebels earlier this month.
Yemen is involved in a war with the Houthis in the north and also is battling rising separatist sentiment in the south.
On January 23, hundreds marched in several cities in southern Yemen, asking participants in a London meeting on Yemen planned for January 27 to discuss the situation in the south, which the opposition says is politically and economically marginalized.
Demonstrators carried placards demanding the revival of the former South Yemen which united with the north in 1990, residents said.
They said a child died today after being wounded during clashes that occurred during similar protests one day before.