Mission accomplished?

After more than six weeks of fighting on its southern border, Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it will suspend major operations against the Yemen-based Houthi rebels within the next few days.

"We are left with only a few infiltration attempts and sniper attacks, but the Saudi forces will stand up for these encounters until the last infiltrator [is killed],” deputy minister of defence Prince Khalid bin Sultan told journalists during a visit to the area.

“All the kingdom’s border from Sharurrah to Jizan is completely secured and the points of infiltration are already known and we will destroy any infiltrators,” he said.

Yemeni infiltrators are still hiding in the village of Jabiriya but “they have 24 hours to surrender, or we will destroy them,” the prince added.

The Saudis have been making optimistic statements – not always justified by events on the ground – since they entered the conflict and it remains to be seen whether they can extricate themselves quite so easily. Some analysts suggests the Houthis could still pose a threat.

The repeated claims of military successes heard over the last few weeks were clouded yesterday when Prince Khalid revealed casualty figures for the first time.

He said 73 Saudi soldiers have been killed, 470 wounded and 26 have gone missing since the fighting began. Twelve of the missing soldiers are thought to be dead. Of the wounded, 60 are still in hospital.

This is a high casualty rate when compared with western military operations in Afghanistan (for example) and it may be explained by the Saudi forces' lack of training in unconventional warfare. There have been unconfirmed reports of Jordanian troops being sent to assist them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 December 2009.