SANAA – The Saudi-led coalition that’s fighting against Shiite rebels in Yemen said it completed a blockade of the country’s ports and is ready to step up airstrikes.
Bombing missions are seeking to stop the Shiite Houthis from moving forces between Yemen’s cities, Ahmed Asseri, a Saudi military officer, told reporters in Riyadh on Monday. Coalition aircraft and warships targeted the rebels as they advanced toward Aden, the southern port that’s the last stronghold of Saudi Arabia’s ally in Yemen, President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. Shipping routes to and from the ports are under the coalition’s control, Asseri said.
The conflict in Yemen has escalated the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has ties to the rebels. It has further destabilized a region that holds more than half the world’s oil and is already wracked by wars in Syria and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is heading a coalition of 10 Sunni-led nations, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, seeking to halt the Houthi advance. The rebels have seized much of the country and drove Hadi out of the capital, Sanaa, last month.
Airstrikes by the Saudi-led force began last week. A refugee camp was hit on Monday and at least 15 people were killed, Doctors Without Borders said. The Houthi-run news agency Saba put the toll at 40. Asseri said he couldn’t confirm the reports.
The Saudis and their allies haven’t ruled out sending ground troops to stop the Houthis. The rebels have formed an alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still commands the loyalty of parts of the army.
So far, bombing hasn’t driven the Houthis back from their positions around Aden, though they haven’t captured the city. Houthi-backed forces are trying to seize the Dar Saad region and recapture Aden’s airport, Hussein al-Wahishi, a military officer fighting on Hadi’s side, said by phone.
If Houthi-backed forces continue to make advances in the next two weeks, “the coalition will have to reassess what they are doing,” Ibrahim Sharqieh Frehat, a conflict resolution professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, said by telephone. “They shouldn’t take for granted that an air war and then ground forces will achieve their objectives” and must engage in negotiations with the rebels, Frehat said.
The Saudis say Iran is behind the rebel gains, while the Houthis accuse Hadi and his Gulf backers of collaborating with al-Qaida’s Yemen branch.
Coalition airstrikes have also targeted the bases of Republican Guard forces loyal to Saleh around Sanaa throughout the night, as well as air defenses and arms depots, according to local residents.
Hadi fled from Sanaa to Aden in February after escaping Houthi house arrest in the capital. He left the city clandestinely last week, reappearing at an Arab League summit in Egypt on Saturday before leaving with Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Arab leaders at the meeting agreed on forming a unified military force, though the details have yet to be worked out and it’s not clear whether the prospective force could be deployed to Yemen.
The Houthis say they operate independently of Iran and are fighting against oppression by Sunni-dominated governments in Yemen. They follow the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, like about 40 percent of Yemen’s people, and are concentrated in the northern half of a country that only reunified in 1990 after decades of division into two states.
The rebels have fought with the Saudi army in the past. Three months of clashes across the 1,100-mile Saudi-Yemen border that started in late 2009 left more than 100 Saudi soldiers dead.