SANAA, Yemen: Saudi warplanes bombed Huthi rebels in Yemen on Thursday, launching an Arab military intervention in support of its embattled president that regional rival Iran warned was a “dangerous” move.
The rebels and their allies within the armed forces had been closing in on main southern city Aden where Hadi has been holed up since fleeing the rebel-controlled capital Sanaa last month.
Their advance had raised fears in Saudi Arabia that the Shiite minority rebels would seize control of the whole of its Sunni-majority neighbour and take it into the orbit of Shiite Iran.
Iran condemned the Saudi-led intervention against its coreligionists as “a dangerous step” that violated “international responsibilities and national sovereignty.”
Huge explosions were heard in Sanaa as warplanes pounded an air base adjacent to the international airport and other locations .
At least 14 civilians were killed when seven homes near the air base were reduced to rubble, a civil defence source said.
At daybreak hundreds of families streamed out of the capital seeking the relative safety of the provinces.
“I am leaving with my family — Sanaa is no longer safe,” said one resident, who gave his name only as Mohammed, as he piled his belongings into a minibus in the Bani Huwat neighbourhood.
In the south, residents reported hearing explosions at the huge Al-Anad air base, north of Aden, which was seized by anti-government forces on Wednesday.
The Saudi ambassador to the United States said the operation had begun with air strikes but that the kingdom and its allies stood ready to do “whatever it takes” to protect Hadi’s government.
US providing support
Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir said that the kingdom had assembled a coalition of more than 10 countries, including five Gulf monarchies, for the military operation to defend Hadi’s government.
Washington said President Barack Obama had authorised the “provision of logistical and intelligence support” for the campaign.
Jubeir told reporters in Washington that the operation “is to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Huthi movement from taking over the country”.
He said that for the moment the action was confined to air strikes, but that other military assets were being mobilised and that the coalition “would do whatever it takes”.
“The Royal Saudi Air Force has taken out the Huthi air defences and destroyed numerous Huthi fighter planes,” a Saudi adviser said, adding that air force “has pretty much secured most of the Yemeni air space and is now consolidating a wide no-fly zone.”
The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said that the kingdom had deployed 10 fighter jets to the operation, while the United Arab Emirates had committed 30, Bahrain and Kuwait 15 each and Qatar 10.
It said Saudi Arabia had also mobilised 150,000 troops near the border.
All civilian fights were halted at seven Saudi airports in the border region.
The official Saudi Press Agency said Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan had “expressed desire to participate in the operation”.
Egypt, Jordan and Sudan confirmed they were joining the campaign.
Four Egyptian warships passed through the Suez Canal on Thursday en route for the Gulf of Aden, canal officials said.
Egypt said it stood ready to provide ground troops too if necessary.
Pakistan said it had received a Saudi request to participate but that it was still being “examined”.
Morocco voiced support but made no mention of any involvement by its military.
US Secretary of State John Kerry held a conference call with Gulf ministers to discuss the operation and “commended the work of the coalition taking military action against the Huthis” a senior US official said.
Kerry noted Washington’s support “including intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, and advisory and logistical support for strikes against Huthi targets,” the State Department official said.
The Saudi adviser said his country’s defence minister warned the son of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, “who is commanding the attack on Aden that his forces face ‘obliteration’ if they continue their push toward Aden.”
Saleh, who resigned in 2012 following a year of nationwide protests, is accused of allying with the rebels, relying on the loyalty of many army units that he built during his three-decade rule.
On Wednesday, army units seized Aden’s international airport after switching allegiance to the rebels.
But the airport was back in the hands of militia loyal to Hadi on Thursday after those troops pulled out.
Proxy war fears
Yemen has been gripped by growing turmoil since the Shiite Huthi rebels launched a power takeover in Sanaa in February.
The strife has raised fears Yemen could be torn apart by a proxy war between Shiite Iran, accused of backing the rebels, and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which supports Hadi.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the Saudi-led intervention saying it would lead only to greater loss of life.
“Military action from outside of Yemen against its territorial integrity and its people will have no other result than more bloodshed and more deaths,” he told the Iranian-owned Al-Alam television channel.
The Saudi-led intervention triggered a sharp rise in world oil prices on fears the conflict could threaten supplies.
Prices jumped more than five percent in Asian trade, while Gulf stock markets fell sharply before recovering some of their losses.
Dozens of people have been killed as the Huthis backed by troops allied to former strongman Saleh, have clashed with pro-Hadi forces in their drive southwards.
Five Hadi loyalists and 13 Huthis were killed on Thursday in fighting for the city of Huta, capital of Lahj province adjacent to Aden.
Yemen has allowed Washington to wage a longstanding drone war against Al-Qaeda in the country.
In an appeal to the UN Security Council Tuesday, Hadi voiced concern that Al-Qaeda would “seize the current instability to spark further chaos.