Yemen becomes regional battleground

Published: Friday 27th March 2015 by The News Editor

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The turmoil in Yemen has exploded into a regional conflict, with Saudi Arabia and its allies bombing Shiite rebels allied to Iran and Egypt planning a ground assault.

Iran condemned the Saudi-led air campaign, saying it “considers this action a dangerous step” and oil prices jumped in New York and London after the offensive.

The military action turned impoverished and chaotic Yemen into a new front in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Yemen’s US-backed President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country on Wednesday as the rebels known as Houthis advanced on his stronghold in the southern port of Aden, reappeared a day later, arriving by plane in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, Saudi state TV said.

Starting before dawn, Saudi warplanes pounded an air base, military bases and anti-aircraft positions in the capital Sanaa and flattened a number of homes near the airport, killing at least 18 civilians, including six children. Another round followed in the evening, again rocking the city.

Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi angrily accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel of launching a “criminal, unjust, brutal and sinful” campaign aimed at invading and occupying Yemen.

“Yemenis won’t accept such humiliation,” he said in a televised speech, calling the Saudis “stupid” and “evil”.

The Houthis, who have taken over much of the country, mobilised thousands of supporters to protest against the air strikes, with one speaker lashing out at the Saudi-led coalition and warning that Yemen “will be the tomb” of the aggressors.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir said Iran was a major backer of the Houthis, with Revolutionary Guard officers and operatives from the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah on the ground advising the rebels.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said President Barack Obama had authorised logistical and intelligence support for the strikes, but the US was not joining direct military action.

In the air assault codenamed Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Arabia deployed about 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV said. Also involved were aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt.

Once the air strikes have weakened the rebels and their allies in the military forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a ground invasion of Yemen is planned by Egyptian Saudi and other forces.

The assault will come from Saudi Arabia and by landings on Yemen’s coasts along the Red and Arabian seas, according to three Egyptian military and security officials.

Three to five Egyptian troop carriers were stationed offshore, they said, although the number of troops was not specified, nor the timing of the operation.

The aim was not to occupy Yemen but to weaken the Houthis and their allies until they entered negotiations for power-sharing, the officials said.

Egypt is “prepared for participation with naval, air and ground forces if necessary”, foreign minister Sameh Shukri told a gathering of Arab foreign ministers preparing for a weekend summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Saudi Arabia and fellow Sunni-led allies in the Gulf and the Middle East view the Houthi takeover as an attempt by Iran to establish a proxy on the kingdom’s southern border. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though it says it provides diplomatic and humanitarian support.

The Saudis and their Gulf allies have asked the United Nations Security Council for a resolution that would impose an arms embargo on the rebels and financial sanctions on individual members.

Yemen plays a crucial geographic role in the world’s oil supply, with tankers that go through the Suez Canal having to navigate around the country.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain said their action aimed to “protect” Yemenis from Houthis who are “a tool in the hands of foreign powers”.

In recent months the Houthis have swept out of their northern strongholds to take over Sanaa and much of the north.

They have succeeded in their advance with help from Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for more than 30 years until he was ousted after a 2011 Arab Spring popular uprising. He remained in the country, enjoying the loyalty of some of the strongest military units, which undermined Mr Hadi. Those units are now fighting alongside the Houthis.

Houthis lashed out in Sanaa as their fighters stormed the offices of at least three TV stations and an independent newspaper they consider close to their opponents. Among them was the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera, which said militiamen stormed its office, broke surveillance cameras and damaged equipment.

Mr Hadi had hoped to cling to power with the backing of some police and military units and allied militiamen. But as the Houthis and their allies bore down on Aden he fled, according to security sources.

A Yemeni security official said Mr Hadi had gone by boat on Wednesday to the Yemeni port of al-Mukalla in the western province of Hadramawt, where he spent the night. He drove over the border into Oman the next day and was flown to Riyadh. He is expected to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh summit tomorrow.

Published: Friday 27th March 2015 by The News Editor

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