Saudi vows to cover UN aid call for Yemen, keeps up air raids

RIYADH (AFP) - Saudi Arabia pledged Saturday to cover the entire US$274 million (S$369 million) in humanitarian aid sought by the UN for conflict-torn Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Shi'ite rebels for three weeks.

The United Nations says hundreds of people have died and thousands of families fled their homes in the war, which has also killed six Saudi security personnel in border skirmishes.

At least 27 people died in the southwestern city of Taez during overnight clashes between loyalist forces and the Iran-backed Shi'ite Huthi rebels, as well as in coalition air raids, medical sources said.

That followed strikes by coalition warplanes on Friday around the Huthi rebel-held capital Sanaa, where thick clouds of grey smoke and a fireball rose from one military post.

Saudi King Salman ordered the humanitarian pledge following a United Nations appeal on Friday for US$274 million in emergency assistance for the millions affected by Yemen’s war.

The kingdom “stands with its Yemeni brothers” and hopes for “the restoration of security and stability", the state Saudi Press Agency said, quoting an official statement.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator Johannes Van Der Klaauw said in the appeal: “Ordinary families are struggling to access health care, water, food and fuel – basic requirements for their survival.”

Aid has only trickled into Yemen, largely because of restrictions imposed by the coalition on its airspace and ports.

The rebels swept into Sanaa last September from their highland stronghold and then advanced south on the port of Aden, forcing President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Riyadh.

EXPLOSIONS, GUNFIRE

The coalition began its campaign after Saudi Arabia feared that the Huthis, allied with army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, would shift Yemen into the orbit of Shi'ite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.

Residents said explosions and gunfire shook Taez overnight during fighting between Hadi loyalists and the insurgents.

Nineteen rebels, four soldiers from a mechanised army unit loyal to the president and four other pro-Hadi fighters were killed, a medical source told AFP.

Rival fighters also clashed Friday night in districts of Aden, the main southern city, residents and security sources said.

Pro-Hadi forces backed by air strikes held off rebels battling for the past week for control of Aden’s refinery, 15km west of the city.

The Yemen conflict has sent tensions soaring between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Teheran is a key ally of the Huthis but denies arming them.

The Islamic republic’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that Iran’s military should not be seen as a threat in the Middle East.

The presence of Iranian naval ships “in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden is intended to ensure the security of neighbouring countries and maritime traffic", he said at an Army Day ceremony.

On Friday, Teheran submitted a four-point Yemen peace plan to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

It calls for a ceasefire and immediate end to all foreign military attacks, the urgent delivery of humanitarian and medical aid, a resumption of political talks and the formation of a national unity government.

In a letter to Ban, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote that the international community must “get more effectively involved in ending the senseless aerial attacks and establishing a ceasefire”.

NO EARLY END

In Riyadh, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri said Friday coalition warplanes “have started operations in Taez”.

There were 100 sorties in Yemen on Thursday, he said, indicating no early end to the operation: “We are not in a hurry", he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday that coalition air strikes which killed at least 31 civilians at a dairy factory on March 31 “may have been indiscriminate or disproportionate”.

A retired Saudi fighter pilot, however, told AFP on Saturday that the coalition campaign has been conducted professionally.

It has been “very precise, (with) good planning, selecting the right targets", Major General Abdullah al-Sadoun said.

HRW also accused opposing forces in the southern city of Lahj, near Aden, of endangering a hospital.

“Fighters on both sides in Lahj have unlawfully put a hospital in the middle of a battle,” said Joe Stork, the watchdog’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

Yemen is a front line in the US war on Al-Qaeda, which has exploited the growing turmoil to expand its control of areas in the south-east of the deeply tribal Arabian Peninsula country.

On Friday, Al-Qaeda overran a key army camp in the Hadramawt provincial capital Mukalla, seizing heavy weapons and consolidating its grip on the city, an official and residents said.