Saudi-led alliance steps up strikes against Yemeni rebels (dpa German Press Agency)

Sana’a/Riydah (dpa) – A Saudi-led Arab coalition on Thursday intensified its airstrikes against the Houthi rebels sweeping southward in Yemen, in a conflict that pits regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other.
Allied strikes targeted the Houthis’ installations in the rebel-held capital Sana’a, destroying military batteries and at least four warplanes, Saudi-owned broadcaster Al-Arabiya reported.
Saudi jets also bombarded a reserve troop base manned by the Houthis in southern Sana’a, Yemeni website Mareb Press said.
Gulf countries with Sunni majorities are worried that the collapse of embattled President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi’s rule in Yemen may entrench the regional influence of Shiite Iran, which is seen as backing the Shiite Houthi movement.
The military operation, which started late Wednesday, is the first of its kind by Saudi Arabia in Yemen in about six years.
Yemeni rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi described the Saudi-led military operation against his movement as an “unjust aggression against Yemen.”
“The evil neighbor (Saudi Arabia) is implementing an Israeli plot through this aggression which is aimed at destabilizing the stability of Yemen,” al-Houthi said in a televised speech.
“Yemen will be the graveyard of the aggressors,” he warned, accusing Saudi Arabia of trying to occupy Yemen.
“I advise you to stop this aggression or else all options will be opened,” he said.
In 2009, the Sunni monarchy mounted airstrikes against the Houthis following a deadly cross-border attack.
This latest offensive was launched after rebels and soldiers loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh pushed into the southern city of Aden in which Hadi took refuge last month after fleeing Sana’a.
Late Thursday, Hadi arrived in the Saudi capital Riydah, according to Saudi state television.
Hadi was met by Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdel Aziz, who is also the head of the Saudi military operation in Yemen.
Hadi is due to attend an annual Arab summit starting in Egypt’s Red Sea town of Sharm al-Sheikh on Saturday, Al-Arabiya reported.
Hadi’s departure from Aden was conducted under Saudi protection, the broadcaster added without giving details.
Saudi Arabia has deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and an unspecified number of navy units for the operation.
Other Arab countries, among them the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan, have also joined the fight against the Houthis, who have taken over large parts of Yemen in recent months.
Egypt, a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, said it is participating with navy and air forces. The United States said it is providing logistical and intelligence support.
US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the situation with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Thursday. He also raised the issue in talks with Iran about its nuclear programme, but it was not the primary focus of their discussion, spokesman Jeff Rathke said.
“We understand the Saudis’ concerns, we understand the threat that they perceive on their border to which they’re responding,” Rathke said. “We’re supportive of their efforts to address that. Our ultimate goal remains a political negotiation process.”
An official at the Houthi-controlled Health Ministry told dpa at least 25 civilians were killed and 40 others wounded in a Saudi-led airstrike on a residential area near Sana’a airport.
The pro-Houthi al-Masirah TV showed what it said were people killed and wounded by the bombing from Saudi jets in Sana’a. It also showed the ruins of destroyed houses.
Al Arabiya said airstrikes also targeted the Houthis’ northern stronghold of Saada near the Saudi border. It gave no casualty figures.
The reports could not be independently verified.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif demanded an “immediate halt to Saudi Arabia’s military operations,” according to Iran’s Fars news agency.
Fars reported that Zarif told the al-Alam news channel that Saudi Arabia’s military action was a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and that Tehran will “make all our efforts to control the crisis.”
The pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah movement also denounced what it called “Saudi-American aggression” in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia said the military action against the Houthis was in response to an appeal from Hadi, but a spokesman for the Houthis told the Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera that the Saudi-led operation was a “declaration of war.”
Hadi’s government has repeatedly called on Arab allies for military intervention to halt the rebels’ territorial expansion.
Nabil al-Arabi, the Arab League chief, voiced backing for the military campaign.
“The operation is being mounted against specific targets of the coup plotters – the Houthis,” he told a meeting of the Arab foreign ministers in Egypt.
Al-Arabi later Thursday said the Council of Arab Foreign Ministers at the Arab League approved a draft resolution to form a unified Arab force during a closed session ahead of the league’s summit.
The draft will be discussed and voted on during the League’s summit, which is scheduled to take place Saturday and Sunday.
The purpose of the joint force will be to “preserve internationally recognised legitimacy,” al-Arabi said in a joint press conference with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri following the session.
Yemen is home to an active al-Qaeda offshoot, which has been the target of repeated airstrikes by US drones in recent years.
The Houthis overran Sana’a in September and have since advanced across Yemen, sparking deadly clashes with local Sunni tribes and al-Qaeda operatives.