Saudis launch air strikes in Yemen

Published: Thursday 26th March 2015 by The News Editor

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Saudi Arabia has launched air strikes against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen, hours after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country by sea as the Shiite rebels and their allies moved on his last refuge in the south, captured its airport and put a bounty on his head.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, vowing the Sunni kingdom would do “anything necessary” to restore a deposed government that has been routed by the Iranian-backed group, announced the rare military operation by his country at a Washington news conference about half an hour after the bombing began.

He would not say whether the Saudi campaign involved US intelligence assistance.

Loud, house-shaking explosions could be heard in the Yemen capital Sanaa and fire and smoke could be seen in the night sky. The Houthis said Saudi jets were hitting the military base known as al-Duleimi, in Sanaa. They said they fired anti-aircraft missiles in response.

The departure of close US ally Mr Hadi and the imminent fall of the southern port of Aden pushed Yemen further towards a violent collapse and also threatened to turn the impoverished but strategic country into another proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran.

There were indications that others in the region would follow suit. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Mr Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen”.

Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Co-operation Council, did not sign the statement.

Egypt also announced political and military support. “There is co-ordination ongoing now with Saudi Arabia and the brotherly gulf countries about preparations to participate with an Egyptian air and naval forces and ground troops if necessary,” a government statement said.

Arab leaders are expected to meet in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh at the weekend for a pre-planned summit which is now expected to be dominated by the developments in Yemen. It is not clear if Mr Hadi will be able to attend.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Houthis are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran.

The crumbling of Mr Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counter-terrorism strategy against al Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. Over the weekend, about 100 US military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading a drone campaign against al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.

In fighting in Lahj, they captured Mr Hadi’s defence minister Maj Gen Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and then swept into nearby al-Annad base.

The Houthis are backed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to him and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.

Mr Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.

With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Mr Hadi and his aides left Aden after 3.30pm on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials said.

Mr Saleh said in a speech two weeks ago that Mr Hadi might head for the African country of Djibouti across the Gulf, just as leaders of southern Yemen fled.

Shortly after Mr Hadi fled his palace in Aden, warplanes targeted presidential forces guarding it. No casualties were reported. By midday, Aden’s airport fell into hands of forces loyal to Mr Saleh based in the city after intense clashes with pro-Hadi militias.

Yemen’s state TV, now controlled by the Houthis, announced a bounty of nearly 100,000 dollars (£67,500) for Mr Hadi’s capture.

The Houthis still face multiple opponents. Sunni tribesmen and local militias are fighting them in many places around Yemen, and the rebels have little support in the south.

Some military units remain loyal to Mr Hadi, although they are severely weakened. Alarmingly, al Qaida militants have emerged as a powerful force against the rebels and there are signs of a presence of the even more extremist Islamic State (IS) group. Last week the group said it carried out suicide bombings against the Houthis in Sanaa that killed 137 people.

Published: Thursday 26th March 2015 by The News Editor

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