Archive for July 28, 2015


March 26, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi Arabia bombed key military installations in Yemen on Thursday after announcing a broad regional coalition to oust Shiite rebels that forced the country’s embattled president to flee. Some of the strikes hit positions in the country’s capital, Sanaa, and flattened a number of homes near the international airport.

The airstrikes, which had the support of nine other countries, drew a strong reaction from Iran which called the operation an “invasion” and a “dangerous step” that will worsen the crisis in the country.

Iran “condemns the airstrikes against Yemen this morning that left some innocent Yemenis wounded and dead and considers this action a dangerous step,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in a statement. She said military action would complicate and worsen the crisis in Yemen.

“This invasion will bear no result but expansion of terrorism and extremism throughout the whole region,” she said. The Saudi airstrikes came hours after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally, fled Yemen by sea after rebels pushed their way toward the southern port city of Aden where he had taken refuge.

The back-and-forth between the regional heavyweights was threatening to turn impoverished Yemen into a proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News reported that the kingdom had deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units in “Operation Decisive Storm.”

The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, were calling on their supporters to protest in the streets of Sanaa on Thursday afternoon, Yemen’s Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA reported. TV stations affiliated with the rebels and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, showed the aftermath of the strikes Thursday morning in what appeared to be a residential area.

Al-Masirah TV, affiliated with the Houthis, quoted the ministry of health as saying that 18 civilians were killed and 24 were injured. Yemen Today, a TV station affiliated with Saleh, showed hundreds of residents congregating around a number of flattened houses, some chanting “Death to Al-Saud”, in reference to the kingdom’s royal family. The civilians were sifting through the rubble, pulling out mattresses, bricks and shrapnel.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene in the Sanaa neighborhood near the international airport saw people searching for loved ones in the debris of flattened homes. Residents said at least three bodies were pulled from the rubble. There were traces of blood between the bricks.

Ahmed al-Sumaini said an entire alley close to the airport was wiped out in the strikes overnight. He said people ran out from their homes in the middle of the night. “This was a surprise. I was asleep and I was jolted out of my bed,” he said, waving a piece of shrapnel.

In addition to the airport, targets included the camp of U.S.-trained Yemeni special forces, which is controlled by generals loyal to Saleh. Yemeni security officials said the targets also included a missile base in Sanaa that was controlled by the Houthis earlier this year. One of the security officials said the strikes also targeted the fuel depot at the base.

The Houthis said in a statement that Saudi jets hit the military base, known as al-Duleimi, and that they responded with anti-aircraft missiles. The strikes also hit the al-Annad air base in the southern Lahj province. About 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew over the weekend from base, where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to brief journalists.

Riad Yassin, Yemen’s foreign minister, told Saudi’s Al-Hadath TV that the airstrikes were welcomed. “I hope the Houthis listen to the sound of reason. With what is happening, they forced us into this,” he said.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir announced the military operation in a news conference in Washington. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.

The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes. Other regional players were involved in the Saudi operation: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

On a Thursday conference call with foreign ministers from the council, Secretary of State John Kerry commended the work of the coalition’s military action against the Houthis, according to a State Department official traveling with Kerry in Lausanne, Switzerland. Kerry noted U.S. support for coalition efforts, including intelligence sharing and logistical support for strikes against Houthi targets, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private diplomatic call.

Egypt announced political and military support, saying it is ready to send ground troops if necessary. Jordan confirmed it was participating in the operation. Pakistan, Morocco and Sudan were also taking part, the Saudi Press Agency reported Thursday.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Houthis are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran. Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.

The Houthis are backed by Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.

Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.

With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden Wednesday on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told AP. The officials would not specify his destination.

Arab leaders are meeting in Egypt this weekend for a pre-planned summit. It is unclear if Hadi will join them.

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March 25, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — With Yemen’s president swept out of power by Shiite rebels, neighboring Saudi Arabia and allies such as Egypt are considering whether and how to intervene to stop a takeover of the country by rebels they believe are backed by Shiite Iran.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has asked Gulf countries for military intervention and asked the United Nations to set up a no-fly zone to shut down rebel-held airports that he claims are being used to fly in Iranian weapons. The question is how Arab nations might act: Experts say a ground operation would be a likely impossibly daunting task, but that airstrikes are an option.

Gulf intervention would have been hard enough when Hadi was clinging to his authority after fleeing from the capital Sanaa to the southern port city of Aden. But it became an even tougher issue Wednesday, when Hadi was forced to flee Yemen by boat as rebel fighters — known as Houthis — and their allies advanced into Aden. The Houthis now control much of the north and a few southern provinces, backed by military forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed in 2011 after a popular uprising.

There does remain resistance to the Houthis and Saleh — chiefly Sunni tribesmen in the north and center of the country, local militias and some units of the military and police remain loyal to Hadi, though they are profoundly weakened by his departure. The scattered nature of the opposition raises the question of whom would any foreign intervention being aiming to help. Also battling the Houthis are militants from al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, which has attracted some Sunni tribesmen as allies.

A summit of Arab leaders being held this weekend in Egypt is due to address a proposal to create a joint Arab defense force, an idea promoted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to intervene in regional crises. Hadi is to attend the summit, being held in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The summit is also likely to address the crisis in Yemen and how to deal with it — opening the door for a possible Arab League stamp of approval for action.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdellaty said that he and his Arab counterparts would discuss the idea of establishing a joint force on Thursday, to prepare for national leaders to decide on Saturday.

Gulf nations also have cited their own pretext for intervention. The Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain, warned earlier this year that they would act to protect the Arabian Peninsula’s security and described the Houthi takeover of parts of Yemen as a “terrorist” act. The Gulf’s emergency military force, known as Peninsula Shield, intervened in Bahrain in 2011 to help the Sunni monarchy crush protests backed by the Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies fear that the Shiite advance in Yemen is putting that strategic country on the southern Saudi borders into the control of Iran. The Houthis and Iran both deny Tehran is arming the rebels. Still, a direct air route recently opened from Tehran to Sanaa, which has been held by the Houthis since September, officially to being aid and medical supplies. Hadi and his allies say the heavy air traffic along the route is delivering Iranian weapons.

This week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.” On Sunday night, Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited troops in the south near the Yemen border. According to the state news agency he ordered the rapid completion of plans on building a naval base and new military camps in the area, apparently part of plans to build up the army presence in the area.

Egypt has said for months that it would act if the Houthis threaten vital shipping lanes that lead to its Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden, an area the Houthis have already approached. Much of the Gulf region’s oil exports destined for the West sail through the area.

But what would a military intervention look like? Not a ground invasion, says Sir John Jenkins, Middle East Executive Director for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I think the likelihood of boots on the ground is very low,” he said. “The Houthis are on home terrain, supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh, and have proved themselves effective fighters. They also have heavy weaponry and political support from Iran.”

A ground invasion now would face the tough terrain between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and a fierce enemy that for years beat back Yemeni government forces from its northern highland redoubts. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen against the Houthis once before, in late 2009 to early 2010, when the rebels’ battle at the time with Saleh’s regime spilled over across the border into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia retaliated with airstrikes against the Houthis and a ground incursion. The campaign left more than 130 Saudi troops killed.

More likely now would be airstrikes by some combination of Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain, all of which have advanced versions of American F-16s, or Egypt, which has large numbers of older versions. Egypt would have to send its planes to air bases in Saudi for the raids, and other countries would likely opt to do the same.

Saudi Arabia could also step up its arming of Sunni tribesmen against the Houthis. The kingdom already funds and arms Sunnis in Yemen’s Marib province, which borders the kingdom. But with Hadi driven out, there isn’t a clear front line for international intervention to support. Any intervention would likely be in the name of restoring Hadi — but doing so with airstrikes alone would be a difficult task.

“Air strikes are a possibility, against military targets, particularly Houthi air assets, artillery and tanks, but that brings its own risks,” Jenkins said. “At the moment preserving the integrity of the land border with Saudi Arabia and the key passages in the Red Sea seems to me the priority.”