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Yemeni President Calls Houthi Rebels 'Stooges of Iran' as Saudi-led Airstrikes Continue

As the rebels continued to advance on key cities in Yemen’s south, human rights groups warned that the airstrikes against them lack precision and are harming civilians.

by Olivia Becker
Mar 28 2015, 5:27pm

Photo by Hani Mohammed/AP

Airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia continued to pound Houthi rebel targets Yemen for the third straight day Saturday, though the rebels have shown no signs of slowing their advance on key cities in the country's south.

Arab leaders are convening over the weekend at the Arab League Summit in Egypt to discuss the situation in Yemen, and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz vowed Saturday to continue the military operation "until it achieves its goals for the Yemeni people to enjoy security."

Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country earlier this week, called the Shia Houthi rebels "stooges of Iran" at the summit. Hadi demanded that the airstrikes and the Saudi-led military operation continue until the Houthis surrender and disarm completely.

Iran, a majority Shia country, has denied accusations that they are backing the Houthis, who have toppled Yemen's Saudi-allied Sunni-majority government.

Many Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, have directly participated in the strikes against the rebels in the past two days, along with additional support from the US, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Related: Saudi-led airstrikes pound Yemen, killing dozens 

US forces rescued two Saudi airmen Friday after they ejected from an F-15 jet over waters south of Yemen, according to the Associated Press. A US helicopter reportedly flew from neighboring Djibouti to the Gulf of Aden to rescue the airmen.

Human rights groups have raised concerns that the airstrikes lack precision and are harming Yemeni civilians. According to a report by Human Rights Watch released Saturday, the Saudi-led strikes killed at least 11 civilians, and potentially as many as 34, in the capital of Sanaa on their first day. The group also noted Saudi Arabia's past use of cluster bombs — munitions that scatter small "bomblets" across a broad area, often killing indiscriminately — and warned against using them in the current fighting.

Amnesty International also reported that six children under the age of 10 were among those killed in the airstrikes on Thursday. "This high toll of civilian deaths and injuries in these attacks raises concerns about compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law," Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, said Thursday in a statement condemning the attacks.

"Saudi Arabian and any other armed forces carrying out airstrikes in Yemen are required to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians," Boumedouha added.

Also on Saturday, a weapons storage facility near the southern city of Aden exploded, killing several people and wounding dozens more. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the blast, but local reports suggested it was an intentional operation to stop looting at the arms depot.

Aden residents reported that many local forces have deserted the Hadi government or switched sides to join the Houthis and were pillaging munitions facilities to arm themselves, according to the New York Times.

Related: Greed, brutality, and an unraveling coup in Yemen

Saudi Arabia's navy helped evacuate dozens of Western and Arab diplomats from Aden on Saturday. The exodus came a week after the US was forced to withdraw 125 Special Operation advisors, signaling a significant setback to the US fight against al Qaeda in Yemen.

The US considers al Qaeda in Yemen to be the most serious threat to Americans, and has been fighting the group with drone strikes and covert intelligence operations. But the Houthis are also battling al Qaeda, which complicates the situation further as it potentially puts the US and Iran on the same side, similar to situation currently unfolding in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928