Saudi-Yemen border tense as troops mass

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Sanaa - A series of clashes along the borders of Saudi Arabia and Yemen over the past few weeks is once again threatening to plunge the Arabian peninsula into crisis.

Unconfirmed reports say the two countries are reinforcing their forces along the disputed frontier, and a visit by senior Yemeni officials to Saudi Arabia has been delayed. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen stopped briefly in Cairo yesterday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak as Arab leaders sought to contain the dispute, which dates back 60 years.

Political sources in Sanaa said mutual suspicion between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, worsened by disagreement since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, had apparently blocked what could have been a smooth renewal last year of a 50-year-old border agreement. As a resultthe de facto frontiers drawn up by the 1934 Taif agreement have been in legal limbo since the new year.

The row "does not merely involve disputed territory but is a reflection of deep-rooted mutual suspicions that are hard to overcome", one diplomat said.

Saudi Arabia, under its founder, King Abdul-Aziz, fought a border war in 1934 against the then ruler of Yemen, Imam Yahia, in which the Yemeni forces were defeated. Arab mediators persuaded the two sides to sign an agreement in the Saudi resort of Taif under which Yahia ceded control of a stretch of territory along the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia for 20 years. But he did not give up Yemen's claim to sovereignty over the thickly-populated terrain. Yemen has never ratified the Taif agreement, which i t says reflected the weight of military defeat, but has renewed it twice, in 1954 and 1974, as negotiations for a final settlement dragged on inconclusively.

Border problems were compounded after 1990, when North and South Yemen merged in a united state ruled from Sanaa, adding vast tracts of ill-defined desert territory further east along Saudi Arabia's southern borders.

Officials from Saudi Arabia and Yemen held several rounds of talks for two years ahead of the 1994 deadline, but again failed to make headway. The two sides have over the past few weeks accused each other of repeated border violations.

In 1993 Saudi Arabia warned foreign oil firms working in Yemen near its western borders to stop work. Some pulled out. Last year Yemen accused the Saudis of supporting southern separatists in a two-month civil war which ended with the secessionists defeat.