Saudi and Arab allies conduct air strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Saudi Arabia carried out air strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday, launching an operation by a regional coalition to save the government, the kingdom's ambassador to the United States said.

Adel al-Jubeir said that for the moment the action was confined to air strikes on various targets around Yemen, but that other military assets were being mobilised and the coalition "would do whatever it takes."

"The operation is to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country," al-Jubeir told reporters in Washington, stressing that the United States had been kept in the loop.

Al-Jubeir said the coalition involved the countries of an existing alliance, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but that it had been joined by "outside countries." "

"We have a coalition of over 10 countries that will participate in these operations to prevent Yemen from falling at the hands of the Huthis," he said. Yemen has been gripped by growing turmoil since Houthi rebels launched a power takeover in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in February and are now fighting in the port city of Aden.

Separately, a statement issued in Riyadh in the name of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - the GCC countries without Yemen's neighbor Oman - said they had been asked for help by President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's embattled government.

"What I can tell you is that we have air assets from a number of countries in the kingdom and we have military assets that are on their way to the kingdom to participate in these operations," said the ambassador, declining to be drawn on which allies had provided planes. "With regards to the geographic distribution of where the operations are, they are not limited to one particular city or one particular region," he added.

The ambassador also said he would not go into detail about the support being provided by Saudi Arabia's allies beyond the Arab world, but added "we consulted very closely with many of our allies and in particular with the United States.

"We are very pleased with the outcome of those discussions," he added, referring questions about whether US military assistance was being provided to the American administration.

- Growing fears -

Al-Jubeir said that the Houthi rebellion had pushed Yemen to the point of collapse and could pose a broader threat unless tough action was taken. "We have a situation where you have a militia group that is now in control or can be in control of ballistic missiles, heavy weapons and an air force," he warned. "I can not recall any situation in my reading of history of any militia who had an air force," he argued.

"So this is a very dangerous situation and we must do everything that we can to protect the people of Yemen and to protect the legitimate government of Yemen." Al-Jubeir said that the legitimate government of Yemen was involved in a political process that had the support of the international community and that no "outside militia" would be allowed to interfere with that.

The strife has raised fears Yemen could be torn apart by a proxy war between Shiite Iran, accused of backing the rebels - who follow a strain of Shiite Islam - and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which supports Hadi. Yemen's acting foreign minister Riyad Yassin warned on Wednesday that the fall of Aden would mean the "start of civil war," as he drummed up Arab military support for Hadi, who was rushed to a safe haven "within Aden" as the rebels closed in.

In Washington, al-Jubeir said: "We hope that the wisdom will prevail among the Huthis and they become part of the political process - rather than continue their radical approach to take over Yemen."

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