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Saudi-led Airstrikes Pound Yemen, Killing Dozens

The Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition continued to launch airstrikes in Yemen on Friday, targeting rebel bases in a series of attacks that local officials say killed at least 39 civilians.

by John Beck
Mar 27 2015, 3:40pm

Photo via Reuters

The Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition continued to launch airstrikes in Yemen on Friday, targeting rebel bases in a series of attacks that local officials say have killed dozens of civilians.

Friday saw the second continuous day of strikes, and officials at the Houthi-held health ministry said that 39 non-combatants had died, AFP reported. El-Rahaba International Airport in the capital of Sanaa was damaged in the attacks, and the area around it is now littered with rubble and burnt out vehicles, according to Al Jazeera.

"The war is really here," a flight engineer Ahmed Ali, 60, told the Qatari network. "It was a nightmare. I hadn't heard something like this since I was seven years old," he said, referring to the 1962 revolution. Many of the city's residents fled to rural areas in an attempt to escape further bombings.

Saudi-owned TV channel al-Arabiya reported that the Gulf dictatorship was providing 100 planes to the assault. Ten allied countries — including UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan — are contributing at least 85 more aircraft, while the US has committed to providing logistical and intelligence support. Riyadh has also deployed 150,000 troops close to its border with Yemen and officials have said that a land offensive may be needed. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said Thursday that he was prepared to send troops into Yemen "if necessary," leading to the possibility of a protracted ground war.

Related: UN Advisor: Yemen Is Inching Towards the 'Edge of Civil War'

Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country on Wednesday after the Shia Houthi rebels advanced on his southern stronghold of Aden, placed a bounty on his head, and arrested his defense minister. This seemingly ended his attempt to cling to power, but Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir said the Gulf Kingdom will do "anything necessary" to defend Yemen's "legitimate government" against the Houthis, which are widely believed to be supported by Shia powerhouse and Saudi rival Iran.

Yemen's political transition since autocrat President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2012 by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising had been widely seen as a rare success story. But the impoverished state has been increasingly troubled since the Houthis swept down from their northern homelands in September and overran Sanaa, virtually unopposed. The avowedly anti-America and anti-Israeli Houthis are often accused of being used by Saleh to restore his power and influence in the country, and are allied with elements loyal to the onetime ruler.

Hadi reached Riyadh on Thursday and was expected to attend this weekend's Arab League summit in Cairo. His whereabouts had previously been unconfirmed after he left Aden, where he had been attempting to consolidate his forces.

The Gulf States have provided support to some pro-Hadi militias for some time, but the regional dimension of the crisis has increased markedly since the Arab coalition strikes began. Jubeir accused Iran of "meddling" in the affairs of the Arab countries in an interview with Fox News on Thursday.

"We have to deal with Iran's aggression in the region," he said.

Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, have condemned the bombings, which state media described as an act of "US-backed aggression."

American involvement adds yet more complexity to already convoluted regional relationships. Washington is now taking part in a last ditch round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, the US began providing air support for Iraqi attempts to retake Tikrit from Islamic State (IS) militants this week. But the attacking force contains a large proportion of Tehran-trained and armed Shia militias, while Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, has also played a widely publicized part in the offensive and is seen locally as leading the operations.

Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, however, is playing a major role in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Washington wishes to see Assad step down, and has provided rebel groups battling him with weapons and training.

As the conflict continues, there is danger that groups like IS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) emerge as a "third force." AQAP also took advantage of chaos during the 2012 uprising to take control of territory in the south. The groups is seen by the US and others as one of the most dangerous al Qaeda factions, and claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January. The presence of IS in Yemen is still difficult to gauge. Some armed groups and clerics have declared their support for the group, but it is currently unclear what links fighters on the ground have with its leadership in Iraq and Syria.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck