Saudi-led coalition warplanes targeted Houthi rebels in Yemen for a third consecutive day on Saturday as India firmed up plans to evacuate some 3,700 of its citizens from the war-torn country via Djibouti.
The latest air strikes in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm hit targets in Hudaydah city on the Red Sea coast, the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada and military installations in and around the capital Sanaa.
The air strikes also targeted the base of former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is believed to have fled to Sanhan near the capital. The air strikes came amid reports of fighting between forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Houthi rebels in the southern port of Aden, Al-Jazeera reported.
New Delhi plans to evacuate some 3,000 Indians from Sanaa and another 700 from the southern port of Aden by ship via the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti, from where they will be airlifted to India. A direct airlift from Yemen has been ruled because all airports have been closed due to the fighting.
The Indian government advised all its nationals earlier this week to avoid travelling to Yemen and to leave the war-torn country as the security situation there “continues to be fragile, with the high possibility of conflicts”.
A large number of the Indians in Yemen are from Kerala, and the external affairs ministry has informed the Kerala chief minister’s office that two ships have been arranged to transport the Indians to Djibouti. Those who cannot make board the ships will be taken by road to Saudi Arabia, officials said.
Saudi Arabia has cobbled together a coalition of 10 countries to target the Houthis and defense minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman is supervising the campaign. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV reported the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan were sending aircraft, while Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan were ready to participate in any ground offensive.
Reports said Saudi Arabia has deployed 100 combat planes, with another 67 coming from the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Saudi and Egyptian warships were deployed on Friday to Bab al-Mandab strait off Yemen to secure the strategic passage. Saudi Arabia has also reportedly mobilised 150,000 troops near the border.
President Barack Obama offered US support for the Saudi-led air strikes during a phone call with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, saying the two countries shared the "collective goal" of seeing stability in Yemen.
“The President and King Salman agreed that our collective goal is to achieve lasting stability in Yemen through a negotiated political solution facilitated by the United Nations and involving all parties as envisioned in the GCC Initiative,” the US National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement.
Obama offered the support to King Salman as it emerged that the US military had rescued two Saudi pilots forced to eject from their F-16 fighter jet over the Red Sea following a technical problem on Thursday.
Despite the Saudi-led air strikes, Houthi rebels reached the outskirts of Aden on Friday, reports said.
Saudi officials have indicated that their military campaign would seek to safeguard enough territory for President Hadi to return from exile, instead of completely defeating the rebels. Hadi had established a government in Aden in February after the Houthis toppled his administration in Sanaa.
“I want to confirm that the operation itself has as its main objective to protect the government in Aden,” Brig Gen Ahmed Asseri, a Saudi military spokesman, told a news conference in Riyadh.
At least 39 civilians have been killed in the Saudi-led campaign, the Houthi-run health ministry in Sanaa said. Twelve died when residential areas were hit in a raid on a military base north of the capital, officials said.
President Hadi is currently in Egypt to attend the Arab League summit in the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, at which the Yemen crisis will take centre stage.
Observers fear that Yemen is fast becoming the latest battleground between Shias and Sunnis. The Houthis are Shias backed by Iran, which is arrayed against Sunni Saudi Arabia in a battle for dominance in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia also has problems with a disgruntled Shia minority in its east and the Shias in neighbouring Bahrain. Iran has extended its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon through Shia communities.
Saudi Arabia has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to prevent the fall of President Hadi and accused Iran of "aggression".
Yemen is also crucial for the US because of the presence of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The US is “already fairly deeply involved in Yemen” and has been “fighting a quiet war there with the cooperation of the Yemeni government, mostly using drones and special forces”, according to the blog of the Brookings Institution.
US counterterrorism officials see AQAP as a “uniquely dangerous terrorist group from a US perspective because it has demonstrated both the will and the capacity to attack US targets”, the Brookings Institution said.