Yemeni foreign minister claims there can be no ‘negotiations’ with Houthi rebels until they relinquish control over occupied territory.
Saudi-led warplanes bombed Yemen’s main international airport and a renegade troop base in the capital Sunday, as Arab leaders vowed to pummel Iranian-backed rebels until they surrender.
The raids on the country’s main airport came just hours after U.N. workers were evacuated following deadly fighting that has sent tensions soaring between Tehran and other Middle East powers. India and Pakistan also moved to airlift their citizens from the chaos-wracked country.
Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi has urged his Arab allies to keep bombing until the Houthi Shia rebels are defeated, branding them Iran’s “puppet.” His Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin said there could be “no negotiations and dialogue” with the rebels “until the legitimate government has control over all Yemeni lands.”
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said at a regional summit in Egypt the offensive would last until the rebels “surrender” their weapons and withdraw from areas they seized.
The Houthis and allied renegade military units have overrun much of Yemen and prompted Hadi to flee what had been his last remaining refuge in the main southern city Aden for Saudi Arabia. Dozens of people have been killed in days of clashes in Aden, dimming prospects of Hadi returning any time soon.
At least 38 people were killed Sunday near the oil region of Usaylan in southern Shabwa province after tribesmen attacked rebel positions, security and tribal sources said. In the capital, witnesses reported three loud explosions and a large fire when Sanaa International Airport was bombed during a fourth night of Saudi-led air raids.
“This was the first time they hit the runway” since the campaign began, an aviation source said. A civil aviation official at the airport later told AFP repair work on the runway had begun.
More than 200 staff from the U.N., embassies and other organizations had been flown out from Sanaa Saturday. A jumbo jet took off from Hodeida in western Yemen Sunday with nearly 500 Pakistanis on board, including Islamabad’s ambassador, officials said.
India said it had received permission from the Arab coalition to airlift out its stranded citizens and would also send a ship.
Saudi-led air strikes on Sunday hit a hill overlooking the Sanaa presidential palace, held by Houthis and their allies, as well as several bases in the port city of Al-Makha, witnesses said. Overnight strikes had hit the pro-rebel Republican Guard headquarters at Al-Subaha base in Sanaa, killing 15 soldiers, a military official said.
The Houthis are backed by army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 after a year-long popular uprising and is accused of supporting the rebels. Saudi-led strikes also hit an airbase in rebel-held Hodeida, witnesses said.
Other raids targeted a base of the First Artillery Brigade in Saada, the Houthis’ northern stronghold. Spokesman Ahmed Assiri told reporters in Riyadh the “coalition operations will increase pressure on Houthi militia” who will “no longer have a safe haven within Yemen.” He also said coalition forces had “ensured a safe corridor” by temporarily suspending operations around Hodeida to allow the Pakistani evacuation.
At the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Arab leaders had “agreed on the principle” of creating a joint military force. The proposal has taken on added urgency since the Houthis seized swathes of Yemen, although Saudi Arabia has said there are no immediate plans to send in ground troops.
The Sunni Arab coalition is said to have been spurred into action by the prospect of a Shia Iran-backed regime seizing power in impoverished Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Russia has voiced concern that the clashes could undermine nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran in the Swiss city of Lausanne, although diplomats said a tentative deal was emerging.
In talks with Yassin in Egypt, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov called on “all sides of the conflict to cease military action in the name of preserving the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yemen,” his ministry said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vociferous critic of Tehran, denounced the “Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis which is dangerous for all of humanity and which must be stopped.”
According to Saudi Arabia, more than 10 countries have joined the coalition defending Hadi. Washington and Britain have pledged logistical support.
Late Saturday, anti-Houthi local fighters were reported to have retaken Aden airport with the loss of five men, and nine rebels killed. Nearly 100 people are reported to have died in violence in Aden in recent days.