Raids cripple Sanaa airport, as UN evacuates Yemen staff
Saudi-led airstrikes attacked the runway at the Yemeni capital's international airport and killed 15 pro-rebel troops elsewhere in Sanaa, military and aviation sources said Sunday.
On the fourth night of raids against rebels and allied troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi-led strikes paralysed the airport in the rebel-controlled capital.
This was the first time they hit the runway" since the campaign began, an aviation source said, a day after UN staff were evacuated from Sanaa. "The airport is completely out of service," he said.
Witnesses reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing a large fire when the air facility was hit around midnight (2100 GMT Saturday).
Meanwhile, overnight air strikes hit the headquarters of the rebel republican guard at Al-Subaha base in Sanaa, killing 15 soldiers, a military official said.
A medic at a military hospital in the capital said it had received 12 bodies and 18 wounded soldiers after the raid.
Air strikes also targeted an airbase in rebel-held Hudaida, in western Yemen, witnesses said, as part of efforts to destroy air defence capabilities.
Other raids targeted a base of the First Artillery Brigade in Saada, the northern stronghold of the rebels.
Saudi authorties say that the airstrike campaign has pushed the rebels out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in the Arab world's poorest country.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the airstrike campaign, now entering its fourth day Sunday, continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads "devastated," according to remarks carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
As the Yemen crisis deepend, Saudi Arabia's navy evacuated dozens of diplomats from the country on Saturday and the United Nations pulled out international staff after a third night of Saudi-led air strikes.
In the capital Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since September, the United Nations said most of its 100 international staff were evacuated.
Airport officials said up to 250 other foreigners working for international oil companies and NGOs also flew out to Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Pakistan, which has yet to decide whether to offer military support to the Saudis, is flying jumbo jets to Yemen to evacuate hundreds of nationals, a Defence Ministry official said.
Despite the ongoing air campagin, Houthi fighters continued to make gains.
On Friday, the Houthis and allied army units gained their first foothold on Yemen's Arabian Sea coast by seizing Shaqra, 100 km (60 miles) east of Aden, allowing them to open a new front to march on the south's main city.
Residents said a Houthi convoy of vehicles, tanks and military trucks heading along the coastal road to Aden from Shaqra was attacked by warplanes before dawn on Saturday, and a number of vehicles were hit.
On Sunday, fighters loyal to President Hadi clashed with rebels in downtown Aden.
Hadi loyalists in the southern port city reported a gun battle in the central Crater district in which three people were killed, and said they recaptured the airport, which has changed hands several times in the last five days of fighting.
The Health Ministry, loyal to the Houthi fighters who control the capital, said Saudi-led air strikes had killed 35 people and wounded 88 overnight. The figures could not be independently confirmed.
Elsewhere, havy clashes erupted between tribal fighters and Houthi-allied soldiers occupying a military camp and adjacent football field in Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, residents said. They said warplanes from Arab states bombed the field twice.
Clashes were also reported in al-Houta, the Lahj provincial capital, north of Aden, where residents were facing water shortages and power cuts.
At the Arab summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Hadi urged Yemen's army to protect state institutions and obey the orders of Yemen's "legitimate leadership".
He also underlined the regional dimensions of the conflict, calling the Houthis "Iran's puppet".
Saudi Arabia's intervention is the latest front in its widening contest with Iran for power in the region. Their proxy struggle is also playing out in Syria, where Tehran backs Bashar al-Assad's government and Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias are playing a major role.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman told the summit the operation would continue until Yemen achieved peace and security, while Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said the Houthi advances "pose a threat to our security".
After the summit, Hadi flew with King Salman to Riyadh, rather than trying to return to Aden. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said he would remain in an Arab capital until conditions allowed his return.
Iran has denied giving the Houthis military support, but Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, added to the sense of confrontation, saying: "Saudi Arabia is too small to be able to threaten Iran" and condemning what he described as a Saudi attack on Yemen.
A Gulf diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Arab alliance initially planned a month-long campaign, but it could last up to six months.
Yemen, by far the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula, has struggled to regain stability since mass protests in 2011 that eventually unseated Saleh after 33 years in power.
Hadi led a UN and Gulf-backed national dialogue that was discussing a new constitution when the Houthis took the capital and pushed him aside. The Gulf official said the aim of the Saudi-led intervention was to restore that process, and that the Houthis could have a role in it.
In comments addressed to Arab heads of state meeting in Cairo, Saleh called on the coalition to stop "the aggression and return to the negotiating table", saying Hadi had failed to run the country.
"Let's go to dialogue and elections, and I promise you that neither I nor any of my relatives will run for the presidency," he said. "Air strikes against Yemen have no justification except Hadi's failure to manage the state. I hope the brothers will not bet on a losing horse."
The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sanaa, and later holding embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels later took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.
A Saudi-led coalition of some 10 countries began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.