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Houthi rebels advance despite Saudi-led air strikes

Yemenis hold posters of the King of Saudi Arabia Salman as they chant slogans during a rally to show support for Saudi-led airstrikes against Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, in Taiz, Yemen.  

Yemen's Houthi rebels made broad gains in the country's south and east on Friday despite a second day of Saudi-led air strikes meant to check the Iranian-backed militia's efforts to overthrow President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Shia Muslim Houthi fighters and allied army units gained their first foothold on Yemen’s Arabian Sea coast by seizing the port of Shaqra 100km east of Aden, residents told Reuters.

Explosions and crackles of small gunfire rang out across Aden late on Friday as Houthis made a push on the southern port city's airport, a witness said.

The advances threaten Mr. Hadi’s last refuge in Yemen and potentially undermine the air campaign to support him.

The spokesman for the Saudi-led operation, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, told a news conference in Riyadh that defending the Aden government was the campaign's “main objective”.

“The operation will continue as long as there is a need for it to continue,” Mr. Asseri said.

Warplanes targeted Houthi forces controlling Yemen's capital Sanaa and their northern heartland on Friday. Mr. Asseri said that planes from the United Arab Emirates had carried out their first strikes in the past 24 hours.

In a boost for Saudi Arabia, Morocco said it would join the rapidly assembled Sunni Muslim coalition against the Houthis. Pakistan, named by Saudi Arabia as a partner, said it had made no decision on whether to contribute.

Regional contest

Riyadh’s military intervention is the latest front in a growing regional contest for power with Iran that is also playing out in Syria, where Tehran backs Assad's government against mainly Sunni rebels, and Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shia militias are playing a major role in fighting.

Sunni monarchies in the Gulf are backing Mr. Hadi and his fellow Sunnis in the country's south against the Shia advance.

Yemen’s powerful ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose military units fight alongside the Houthis, called on Friday for a cessation of hostilities by both sides, according to a statement carried by his party's website.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said the air campaign could end within days.

He said the door was still open for dialogue with the Houthis, while in a Facebook posting, Mr. Hadi urged Yemenis to be patient and predicted the Houthis would soon be gone.

But the Houthis and allied army units seized the southern town of Shaqra in Abyan province on Friday, gaining access to the Arabian Sea, residents said.

Their entry into the city means they control most land routes to Aden and can block tribal fighters trying to come in to reinforce Hadi’s troops.

Residents said dozens of pickup trucks loaded with tribal fighters have reached the town of Mudyah and were expected to clash with the Houthi forces based in Shaqra and the town of Lodar.

During a week of intense fighting, the Houthis have taken the Red Sea port of al-Mukha to Aden’s northwest, and the city's northern outskirts, suggesting Aden is danger, despite the air strikes against the Houthis.

Witnesses in Sanaa said Houthi fighters and allied military units were re-positioning some anti-aircraft units at police stations in some neighbourhoods, causing panic among residents, who fear they will become targets for air strikes.

Residents said aircraft targeted bases around Sanaa of Republican Guards allied to the Houthis, and also struck near a military installation that houses missiles. The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency put the death toll in Sanaa at 24 and said 43 were wounded and 14 houses were destroyed.

Houthi-run al-Masirah television also said 15 people were killed in an air strike on a market in the northern city of Saada.

Oil region hit

The Republican Guards are loyal to Saleh, who retains wide power despite having left office in 2012 after mass protests.

Earlier air strikes south of the city and in the oil-producing Marib region appeared to target military installations also affiliated with Saleh.

Warplanes also hit two districts in the Houthis’ northerly home province of Saada, tribal sources said.

The coalition began air strikes on Thursday to try to roll back Houthi gains and shore up Mr. Hadi, who has been holed up in Aden after fleeing Sanaa in February.

Mr. Hadi left Aden on Thursday to attend an Arab summit in Egypt on Saturday, where he aims to build support for the air strikes.

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his support for the Saudi-led military action in a phone call with Saudi King Salman on Friday, the White House said.

In his first reaction to the attacks, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi on Thursday called Saudi Arabia a bad neighbour and “Satan's horn”, saying in a televised speech Yemenis would confront the “criminal, unjust and unjustified aggression”.

Mosques in Riyadh on Friday preached fiery sermons against the Houthis and their Iranian allies, describing the fight as a religious duty. Saudi Arabia's top clerical council gave its blessing to the campaign.

In the Iranian capital Tehran, Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Kazem Sadeghi described the attacks as “an aggression and interference in Yemen's internal affairs”.

Iran has denounced the assault on the Houthis and demanded an immediate halt to Saudi-led military operations.

While U.S. officials have downplayed the scope of the ties between Iran and the Houthis, Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir said members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed Hezbollah are on the ground advising the Houthis.

The Saudi military spokesman said there was no plans at this stage for ground force operations, but if the need arose, Saudi and allied ground forces would repel “any aggression.”



Yemen on the brink


Who are fighting whom?

  • Houthis:
    The rebel group controls nine of 21 provinces now
  • Saudi-led coalition:
    Here is 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 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: 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 Hadi’s absenc. 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 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 President Abed Rabbo Mansour 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: 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 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 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: 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.



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