Saudi-led alliance steps up strikes against Yemeni rebels (dpa German Press Agency)

Sana’a/Riydah (dpa) – A Saudi-led Arab coalition on Thursday intensified its airstrikes against the Houthi rebels sweeping southward in Yemen, in a conflict that pits regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other.
Allied strikes targeted the Houthis’ installations in the rebel-held capital Sana’a, destroying military batteries and at least four warplanes, Saudi-owned broadcaster Al Arabiya reported.
Saudi jets also bombarded a reserve troop base manned by the Houthis in southern Sana’a, Yemeni website Mareb Press said.
Gulf countries with Sunni majorities are worried that the collapse of embattled President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi’s rule in Yemen may entrench the regional influence of Shiite Iran, which is seen as backing the Shiite Houthi movement.
The military operation, which started late Wednesday, is the first of its kind by Saudi Arabia in Yemen in about six years.
In 2009, the Sunni monarchy mounted airstrikes against the Houthis following a deadly cross-border attack.
The offensive was launched after rebels and soldiers loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh pushed into the southern city of Aden in which Hadi took refuge last month after fleeing Sana’a.
On Thursday, Hadi left Aden for Egypt to attend an annual Arab summit starting in the Red Sea town of Sharm al-Sheikh on Saturday, Al-Arabiya reported.
His departure was conducted under Saudi protection, the broadcaster adds without giving details.
Saudi Arabia has deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and an unspecified number of navy units for the operation.
Other Arab countries, among them the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan, have also joined the fight against the Houthis, who have taken over large parts of Yemen in recent months.
Egypt, a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, said it is participating with navy and air forces. The United States said it is providing logistical and intelligence support.
An official at the Houthi-controlled Health Ministry told dpa at least 25 civilians were killed and 40 others wounded in a Saudi-led airstrike on a residential area near Sana’a airport.
The pro-Houthi al-Masirah TV showed what it said were people killed and wounded by the bombing from Saudi jets in Sana’a. It also showed the ruins of destroyed houses.
Al Arabiya said airstrikes also targeted the Houthis’ northern stronghold of Saada near the Saudi border. It gave no casualty figures.
The reports could not be independently verified.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif demanded an “immediate halt to Saudi Arabia’s military operations,” according to Iran’s Fars news agency.
Fars reported that Zarif told the al-Alam news channel that Saudi Arabia’s military action was a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and that Tehran will “make all our efforts to control the crisis.”
The pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah movement also denounced what it called “Saudi-American aggression” in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia said the military action against the Houthis was in response to an appeal from Hadi, but a spokesman for the Houthis told the Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera that the Saudi-led operation was a “declaration of war.”
Hadi’s government has repeatedly called on Arab allies for military intervention to halt the rebels’ territorial expansion.
Nabil al-Arabi, the Arab League chief, voiced backing for the military campaign.
“The operation is being mounted against specific targets of the coup plotters- the Houthis,” he told a meeting of the Arab foreign ministers in Egypt.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that “all regional actors should act responsibly and constructively, to create as a matter of urgency the conditions for a return to negotiations.”
In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said negotiations are the “only option” to resolve the crisis.
Yemen is home to an active al-Qaeda offshoot, which has been the target of repeated airstrikes by US drones in recent years.
The Houthis overran Sana’a in September and have since advanced across Yemen, sparking deadly clashes with local Sunni tribes and al-Qaeda operatives.