Saudi Arabia dismissed Iranian calls to end air strikes on neighbouring Yemen on Sunday as Saudi-led attacks hit a military camp in the Yemeni city of Taiz, killing eight civilians according to a medical source.
Riyadh said Tehran should not interfere in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies began air strikes against Iranian-allied Houthi militia fighters over two weeks ago to try and prevent them making further advances.
The air raids on the central Yemeni city targeted a site held by soldiers loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who have joined up with Houthi fighters against local militias in the south, the source said.
“How can Iran call for us to stop the fighting in Yemen?” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in the Saudi capital Riyadh at a news conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius. “We came to Yemen to help the legitimate authority, and Iran is not in charge of Yemen.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday that the air strikes were a “crime and genocide” and Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani called for a ceasefire and dialogue among Yemen's factions.
Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies bombing Yemen fear that Shia Iran seeks hegemony by backing armed Shia groups in the region, a charge the Islamic Republic denies. Former President Mr. Saleh was forced to give up power in 2012 after mass protests against his rule, but his loyalists in the military remained in place and now fight alongside the Houthis.
The campaign has raised fears that a sectarian proxy war between rivals Riyadh and Tehran will further destabilise the Middle East and potentially destroy the Yemeni state.
Yemen on the brink
Who are fighting whom?
- ›Houthis: The rebel group controls nine of 21 provinces now
- ›Saudi-led coalition: Here are some of those who are participating and what they are deploying: Saudi Arabia: 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and some naval units UAE: 30 fighter jets Bahrain: 15 fighter jets Kuwait: 15 fighter jets Qatar: 10 fighter jets Jordan: 6 fighter jets Sudan: 3 fighter jets Egypt: naval and air forces involved.
- ›Yemeni security forces: The military is now split as units that support Mr. Hadi, units that support the Houthis, and units that support a still-influential Saleh, who is in the Houthi camp for now
- ›Popular Resistance Committees: Militia loyal to Hadi in his stronghold of south Yemen.
- ›AQAP: Mr. Hadi and Houthis are fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has staged several attacks in the country and is strong in the south. Active since 2009. AQAP has taken advantage of the power struggle.
- ›IS: A new group of militants inspired by the Islamic State group has claimed major attacks, including suicide bombings which killed at least 142 people at Shia mosques in Sana’a.
- ›U.S.: CIA drones have continued to target top AQAP leaders, but the campaign has suffered from Mr. Hadi’s absence. Last week, U.S. military advisers were withdrawn from a southern base as al-Qaeda militants seized a nearby city.
Who are the Houthis?
The Houthis are followers of the Shia Zaidi sect, the faith of around a third of Yemen’s population. Officially known as Ansarallah (the partisans of God), the group began as a movement preaching tolerance and peace in the Zaidi stronghold of North Yemen in the early 1990s.
After some protests pitted it against the government, the group launched an insurgency in 2004 against the then ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh that lasted till 2010. Their opponents view them as a proxy of Shia Iran. The group is hostile to the United States but has also vowed to eradicate al-Qaeda. They participated in the 2011 Arab Spring inspired revolution in Yemen that replaced Saleh with Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi.
Key dates to the Yemen conflict
- ›September 21, 2014: Houthi rebels seize government and military sites in Sana’a after several days of fighting that killed more than 270 people. Rival groups sign a U.N.-brokered peace deal stipulating a Houthi withdrawal from the capital and formation of a new government.
- ›October 9, 2014: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has declared war on the Houthis, claims an attack in Sana’a in which 47 are killed.
- ›October 14, 2014: The Houthis seize the Red Sea port of Hodeida, 230 km west of Sana’a, then move toward the centre without opposition from government forces but face fierce resistance from AQAP and its tribal allies.
- ›January 20, 2015: Houthis attack Mr. Hadi’s residence and seize the presidential palace, and the President and Prime Minister resign two days later.
- ›February 6, 2015: The rebels announce they have dissolved Parliament and installed a presidential council to run the country. The United States and Gulf monarchies accuse Iran of backing the Houthis. In the south and southeast, authorities reject what they brand a coup attempt.
- ›February 21, 2015: Mr. Hadi flees south to Aden after escaping from weeks under house arrest and urges the international community to “reject the coup,” rescinding his resignation and subsequently declaring Aden the temporary capital.
- ›March 19, 2015: Clashes in which at least 11 are killed force the closure of the international airport in Aden and Mr. Hadi is moved to a more secure location after an air raid on the presidential palace there.
- ›March 22, 2015: The Houthis advance southwards, seizing the airport and a nearby military base in Taez, north of Aden and a strategic entry point to Mr. Hadi’s stronghold. Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi says the rebels have moved south to combat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
- ›March 25, 2015: Mr. Hadi is again moved as rebel forces bear down on Aden, capturing a major airbase nearby just days after U.S. military personnel were evacuated from it.