updated 10/18/2009 3:44:38 PM ET 2009-10-18T19:44:38

Yemeni warplanes killed at least 44 Shiite rebels in a series air strikes near the Saudi border, a senior government official said Sunday. The insurgents, however, claim the dead were civilians.

Mohammed Abdelallah al-Qawsi, deputy interior minister, said 27 of the rebels were killed by a strike on a rebel hideout in an abandoned hospital in the small town of Razeh.

The rebels, however, said the hospital was still functional and those killed inside were civilians.

"This is another lie by the government, all those who were killed were innocent civilians," said rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam by telephone.

The Yemeni army maintained rebels were shooting at the army from the hospital.

The international aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, said Razeh hospital was a fully functioning facility when they evacuated their staff from it Thursday.

Reporters are not allowed to travel into the combat zone and it is usually difficult to verify the claims made by the two sides.

The Yemeni army has been embroiled in a five-year conflict with rebels in the northern province of Saada that erupted when Shiite fighters took up arms against the central government, complaining of neglect and the widening influence of hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, some of whom consider Shiites heretics.

Shiites make up 30 percent of Yemen's population of 22 million.

Government efforts to contain the rebellion have been hampered by a separate, secessionist movement in the south, as well as Yemen's crippling poverty and plummeting oil revenues. Some officials also blame corruption in the military for the failure to uproot the rebels.

The fighting, which has displaced about 150,000 people since 2004, flared up again in August, with rebels capturing an army post on a strategic highway between the capital and the Saudi border.

The escalation has killed unknown numbers on both sides and crammed tens of thousands of the newly displaced into camps, schools and barns turned into shelters, while aid groups struggle to bring in supplies.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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