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Saudi pounds Yemen rebel camps, Arab allies gather

A months-long rebellion by Shiite fighters has escalated into a regional conflict that threatens to tear apart the impoverished state at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia has vowed to do “whatever it takes” to prevent the fall of its ally Hadi, accusing Shiite Iran of “aggression” and backing the Huthi rebels’ power grab.

At least 39 civilians have been killed in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Huthis and their allies, officials at the rebel-controlled health ministry in the capital said.

Twelve died when surrounding residential areas were hit in a raid on a military base north of the city, the officials told AFP.

Three dawn strikes Friday hit the rebel-held presidential compound in south Sanaa, witnesses said.

Warplanes also bombed a Huthi-controlled army brigade in Amran province north of Sanaa, and arms depots in the northern rebel stronghold of Saada, residents said.

Hadi, backed by the West and Gulf Arab states, flew into Egypt for a weekend Arab League summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh set to be dominated by Yemen.

He had arrived in Riyadh Thursday in what was the first confirmation of his whereabouts since the rebels began advancing this week on the main southern city of Aden, where he had taken refuge since fleeing Sanaa last month.

Saudi Arabia says more than 10 countries, including four other Gulf monarchies, have joined the anti-Huthi coalition.

‘Intensive’ UAE strikes 

The coalition said all members had contributed to the operation on Friday, with UAE warplanes “intensively” participating in the strikes.

Yemen’s air space is completely under coalition control, and aircraft seized by the Huthis have been destroyed, spokesman General Ahmed Assiri told reporters in Riyadh.

As explosions rocked Sanaa, those families who have not already fled huddled in fear.

“Whenever a plane flies over our home and is met by anti-aircraft gunfire, my three children run to a corner and start screaming and crying,” said Mohammed al-Jabahi, 32.

“We spent a night of non-stop terror and hysteria.”

An anti-aircraft missile wounded eight people, one seriously, when it exploded in a market in Sanaa on Friday, a day after being fired by Huthis, a security official said.

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said the kingdom had deployed 100 warplanes to the operation, while the United Arab Emirates had committed 30, Kuwait 15 and Qatar 10. Bahrain said it had committed 12 fighters.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly also mobilised 150,000 troops near the border.

The Shiite rebels have also clashed with Sunni tribes as they push south.

At least 21 Huthis were killed Friday when residents of a tribal southern region ambushed their vehicles north of Aden, a local official said.

The White House voiced concern about “reports of Iranian flow of arms into Yemen”, while Saudi Arabia denounced Tehran.

Trading accusations

“We have to deal with Iran’s aggression in the region,” the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, told Fox News.

“We’re dealing with their support of the Huthis and the Huthis’ attempt to take over in Yemen,” he added.

Iran reacted furiously to the Saudi-led strikes, calling them a violation of Yemen’s national sovereignty.

“Any military action against an independent country is wrong and will only result in a deepening crisis and more deaths among innocents,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned in 2012 following a year of nationwide protests, is accused of allying with the rebels, relying on the loyalty of many army units that he built during his three-decade rule.

The conflict has raised a major hurdle to Washington’s longstanding drone war against Al-Qaeda militants who have exploited the power vacuum since Saleh’s downfall.

The Islamic State (IS) group, which has seized vast tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq, is also vying for prominence with Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Some observers warned that the Saudi strikes risked feeding instability and extremism.

“I think the net effect of this operation is ultimately dangerous for Yemen’s future path,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Gulf specialist at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It will open up more fissures on the ground, perhaps bolster the Huthis’ popular support as defenders of Yemeni sovereignty, and create more opportunities for AQAP and IS to flourish.”

The fighting triggered a sharp rise on world oil markets on fears the conflict could threaten supplies, although prices gave back some of their gains on Friday.

Washington has pledged logistical and intelligence support for the campaign, while Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan said they were joining it.

Britain said it would provide technical support but would not take part in the strikes.

Pakistan said it was ready to defend Saudi “territorial integrity”, but also appeared to rule out any immediate participation in the fighting. – AFP



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