Exclusive: Saudi Arabia building up military near Yemen border - U.S. officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.

The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi'ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The slide toward war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia's region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis.

The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shi'ite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.

The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive.

One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen's border as "significant" and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden.

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had acquired intelligence about the Saudi build-up. But there was no immediate word on the precise location near the border or the exact size of the force deployed.

Hadi, who supported Washington’s campaign of deadly drone strikes on a powerful al Qaeda branch based in Yemen, has been holed up in Aden with his loyalist forces since he fled Sanaa in February. On Tuesday, forces loyal to Hadi drove Houthi fighters from two towns they had seized hours earlier, residents said, apparently checking an advance by the Shi'ite fighters toward Aden.
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"Exclusive: Saudi Arabia moving military equipment to near Yemen border - U.S. officials" - http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN0MK2S120150324

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