Saudi pounds Yemen rebel camps, Arab allies gather

SANAA (AFP) - Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombed rebel camps in Yemen on Friday in a second day of strikes as embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi arrived in Egypt for talks with Arab allies.

A months-long rebellion by Shi'ite 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 Hadi’s fall, accusing Shi'ite Iran of “aggression” and backing the Huthi rebels’ power grab.

Amid the air raids and scattered fighting, a call for a ceasefire was issued by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, suspected of being allied with the rebels.

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

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

Strikes hit the rebel-held presidential compound in south Sanaa, as well as various military sites outside the capital including rocket launchers at the airport, 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.

And an army unit loyal to Saleh, along with Shiite militiamen, captured two villages in Abyan province, near the main southern city of Aden, where Hadi took refuge after fleeing Sanaa last month, military sources said.

TRIBESMEN AMBUSH REBELS

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

At least 21 were killed Friday when tribesmen ambushed their vehicles north of Aden, a local official said.

Hadi, backed by the West and Gulf Arab states, flew to Egypt Friday for a weekend Arab League summit set to be dominated by Yemen.

He travelled from Riyadh after making his way from Aden as the rebels advanced on the city.

Saudi Arabia says more than 10 countries have joined the anti-Huthi coalition.

Reports said Saudi Arabia has deployed 100 warplanes, with another 67 coming from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

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

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

The coalition now completely dominates Yemen’s air space, and aircraft seized by the Huthis have been destroyed, spokesman General Ahmed Assiri said 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 when it exploded in a market in Sanaa Friday, a day after being fired by the Huthis, a security official said.

TRADING ACCUSATIONS

Iran has reacted furiously to the air strikes, calling them a violation of Yemen’s 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.

Former president Saleh called for “an immediate cessation of military operations by the coalition” and “a simultaneous immediate stop” by the Huthis, as well as a halt to looting of public buildings and army camps.

And he proposed a “resumption of dialogue... under the sponsorship of the United Nations, and its transfer to the United Arab Emirates or a UN building”.

Saleh, who resigned in 2012 following a year of 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.

For now, Washington has pledged logistical and intelligence support for the campaign.

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

Some observers warn that the Saudi strikes risk feeding instability and extremism.

“I think the net effect of this operation is ultimately dangerous for Yemen’s future path,” said Frederic Wehrey, 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 Friday on fears the conflict could threaten supplies, but prices later retreated.