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Saudis flee border fighting with Yemen rebels
Wed Dec 2, 2009 3:41am EST
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By Ulf Laessing
AHAD AL-MASAHARA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Jamila Sharahili and her five children fled their home after Saudi officials came to her village near the Yemeni border, urging her to escape from a war she knows little about.
"I couldn't sleep because of the shelling," said the woman in her 50s, sitting in a tent in a refugee camp set up by the authorities about 35 km (22 miles) from the border.
"I didn't know where to go, but the civil defense told me everything would be fine. So I packed my most valuable belongings and made it here."
Sharahili's family joined thousands of people who have been forced to leave the area since Saudi Arabia launched a military offensive last month against Yemeni Shi'ite Muslim rebels, known as Houthis, after they seized some Saudi territory.
Mohammad bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz, governor of the densely populated Jizan region at the southwestern tip of the kingdom, estimates that 15,000 people have been evacuated so far.
Aid workers say the total could exceed that because more displaced people are still coming to register.
Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally and the world's top oil exporter, fears al Qaeda is using instability in impoverished Yemen to set up havens there from which to target the kingdom.
Only in 2006 did Saudi Arabia manage, with the help of foreign advisers, to halt a three-year, home-grown al Qaeda campaign marked by bloody attacks on expatriate residential compounds, government targets and energy installations.
On the Yemeni side, the conflict between the Houthis and the Sanaa government has displaced up to 175,000 people, according to the United Nations estimates.
Fighting has flared on and off since 2004, but intensified in August when Sanaa launched Operation Scorched Earth against the rebels, who complain of marginalization and neglect.
More than 200 Saudi villages in the border area have been evacuated, officials say.
Sharahili's new temporary home is in the small town of Ahad al-Masahara, where the authorities have erected more than 700 tents, each housing up to 12 people and equipped with air conditioning and electricity.
Children play on dusty ground, while adults watch television in large tents.
"We came here after we could hear loud shelling and authorities asked us to leave," said Saudi teenager Hanan from the village of Nakhshousha. Her sister Juma said: "We have everything but I miss my studies at my school." Continued...
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