Yemen buried 18 soldiers Thursday who had been killed pursuing suspected operatives of Osama bin Laden believed hiding under tribal protection in the rugged mountains of central Yemen, government and tribal officials said.
Search teams, backed up by special forces trained with U.S. help, continued their house-to-house search of villages in Marib, Shabwa and al-Jawf provinces, security officials in Marib province said on condition of anonymity.
They said that Defense Minister Abdullah Ali Eleiwa and senior Interior Ministry officials were in the region directing the search for suspected members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Tribal elders said none of the men being sought had yet been captured.
Interior Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
Also Thursday, tribal mediation continued for a second day in the three provinces in an effort to reach an agreement to hand over the wanted men, the tribal elders said.
On Tuesday, Yemeni special forces moved on several hillside villages in the al-Halsun region of Marib with tanks, helicopters and artillery after the Abida tribe refused to hand over the five suspects. More than 20 people, including the 18 soldiers, were killed in the two-hour morning battle.
Meanwhile, a Yemeni Islamist who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, told The Associated Press that he believes there are about 100 Yemeni and non-Yemeni Arab veterans of the Afghan conflict living under the protection of tribal groups in Yemen. The veteran, in his late 30s, spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said some tribal elders have accepted the veterans, who arrived in Yemen in the mid-1990s, as guests because they provide the elders with money and small arms.
The man, who lives in Abyan province, 185 miles south of the capital, San`a, said those being hunted by Yemeni forces "have not done anything against Yemeni law and are living in the country with the approval of tribal elders."
In rural Yemen, weapons are plentiful and tribal influence generally outweighs government law.
The man would not say whether he or the wanted men were members of al-Qaida, saying only that they were "fighters for God." But he added that he and the other veterans are not engaged in military activities in the country. Rather, he said, they instruct Yemenis in the ultraconservative Wahabi school of Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of Arab Afghan war veterans went to Yemen in the 1990s, but government officials have said most since have been returned to their countries.
Yemen's sweep appeared to be the most serious military operation yet by an Arab country against bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. The United States blames al-Qaida for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and a deadly October 2000 attack on a U.S. destroyer that was refueling in Yemen's port of Aden. American officials have pressured the Yemeni government to crack down on the network's cells in the country.
Securty also has been tightened in the provinces of Hadramout, Abyan and Lahj, three eastern strongholds of Islamic militants. Bin Laden's father emigrated to Saudi Arabia from Hadramout before Osama was born.
Bin Laden has substantial support in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and his al-Qaida network is believed to exist in dozens of countries worldwide.
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