Middle East Updates Saudi Arabia Bars Flight Full of Iranian Pilgrims From Its Airspace

Saudi-led air strikes hit Sanaa, border areas and south Yemen overnight; Sweden to send troops to Iraq to support fight against Islamic State; Canada conducts first airstrike in ISIS in Syria.

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Syrians walk through the rubble following an alleged bombing by Islamic State group in Marea, northern Aleppo, April 8, 2015.
Syrians walk through the rubble following an alleged bombing by Islamic State group in Marea, northern Aleppo, April 8, 2015. Credit: AFP
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Haaretz

Opinions and Analysis on the Middle East: Erdogan in Tehran: Turkey wants to dance at every Mideast wedding (Zvi Bar'el) | Criticism of Saudi Arabia is the latest victim of Egyptian censorship (Zvi Barel) | Erdogan is remaking Turkey in his own image (Arzum Karasu)

For Wednesday's updates, click here

12:20 P.M. Yemen rebels capture oil-rich city despite Saudi-led airstrikes

Yemen's Shiite Houthis captured on Thursday the oil-rich city of Ataq, consolidating the rebel movement's foothold in the southern part of the country despite airstrikes by a Saudi-led alliance.

The Houthis overran Ataq, the capital city of the Shabwa province, hours after a bombardment by coalition warplanes in the area, local sources said.

The fall of Ataq to the Houthis came without resistance from security forces who are believed to be loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of the rebels, the sources added.

"The Houthi forces had set up checkpoints at the entrance of Ataq and in its centre before overrunning government institutions in the city," a local official told dpa on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. (DPA)

11:05 A.M. Saudi Arabia blocks flight carrying Iranian pilgrims

Saudi Arabia's General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA) said it blocked an Iranian flight carrying 260 pilgrims from Saudi airspace because it had not got prior clearance, Saudi's state news agency reported late in Wednesday.

SPA said that the procedure was part of international regulations which the Iranian flight did not follow.

"The operator must file a request with the authority prior to flying, specifying the type of aircraft, registration ... and other documents in order to ensure the safety of passengers and the airspace," said the SPA report.

The move follows heightened tension between the two countries as Saudi Arabia continues air strikes against the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen. Iran's president called on Thursday for a halt to the military campaign. (Reuters)

10:58 A.M. Saudi-led air strikes hit Sanaa, border areas and south Yemen overnight

Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition struck military targets and weapons stores near the capital Sanaa under the control of Houthi fighters, as well as northern areas near the border with Saudi Arabia and in Yemen's south, local officials said.

The air campaign failed to stop the Shi'ite Houthis and soldiers loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh entering central Aden, but the coalition says it has cut Houthi supply lines, destroyed many of their weapons and pushed them back in some southern provinces around Aden.

Overnight strikes also hit an army unit loyal to Saleh in the town of Dhalea, north of Aden, and in the southern provinces of Shabwa and Taiz, the officials said.

They also reported heavy bombardment to the north on the Yemeni-Saudi border. (Reuters)

10:36 A.M. Sweden to send troops to Iraq to support fight against Islamic State

Swedish government said on Thursday the Nordic country will send armed forces to Iraq to support the operations against Islamic State fighters after a request from the Iraqi government.

The government said 35 Swedish troops would be sent to form part of the international forces in northern Iraq, helping to train Iraqi forces who are battling the insurgents.

"Cooperation against terrorism is the key to success. Sweden will continue to support to these common efforts", Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom and Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist said in a signed article in daily Dagens Nyheter.

The two ministers also said that if the situation in Iraq were to worsen, the Swedish contingent in the country might be expanded to 120 soldiers. (Reuters)

4:25 A.M. Russia and Venezuela object to proposed resolution on Yemen

Russia and Venezuela have objected to a draft United Nations resolution that would ban arms shipments to leaders of Yemen's Houthi Shiite rebels and the country's former president and his son to try to halt their military campaign against supporters of the embattled president.

UN diplomats said Russia wants the Security Council resolution to include an arms embargo on all parties in the Yemen conflict — not just the Houthis and their supporters. It also wants the resolution to authorize "humanitarian pauses" in airstrikes by a Saudi-led military coalition supporting the president, which Moscow called for on Saturday, they said.

The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations have been private, said talks between key parties were continuing to try to reach agreement on the draft resolution, sponsored by Jordan. (AP)

4:00 A.M. Iran calls for 'binding' timetable for global nuclear disarmament

2:50 A.M. Kerry says U.S. 'well aware' of Iran's support to Yemen's Houthis

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday the United States is well aware of the support that Iran has been providing to Houthi forces who have driven Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi out of the country.

Kerry said the United States would support countries in the Middle East who feel threatened by Iran.

"We're not looking for confrontation, obviously, but we're not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships and the need to stand with those who feel threatened as a consequence of the choices that Iran might be making," Kerry said in an interview with PBS Newshour. (Reuters)

2:35 A.M. Violence in Egypt's Sinai kills 11 civilians, two soldiers

Military officials say 11 civilians and two soldiers have been killed in three attacks in Egypt's restive northern Sinai.

The officials said a mortar landed Wednesday on a residential area south of Sheik Zweid, a town in northern Sinai, hitting a house and killing nine of its residents.
Separately, officials said a missile landed on a house in another village, killing two civilians.

In a third attack, outside the provincial capital el-Arish, officials said an explosive detonated as a military vehicle drove past, killing two police officers. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Egyptian officials said the military had no operations in the area. (Reuters)

1:39 A.M. Canada conducts first airstrike in Syria

Canadian armed forces conducted their first airstrike in Syria since the government expanded the scope of its military mission against Islamic State last month, Canada's Defence Department said on Wednesday.

"This first airstrike under the expanded mandate demonstrates our government's firm resolve to tackle the threat of terrorism against Canada and to promote international security and stability," Defence Minister Jason Kenney said in a statement.

Two Canadian CF-18s were involved in the airstrike against an Islamic State garrison near Ar-Raqqah, Syria, the government said. Ten coalition aircraft were involved, including six from the United States.

In March, Canadian legislators voted to expand the mission by a year and to allow for the bombing of militants in Syria.

Canada has around 70 special forces troops in northern Iraq and six Canadian jets are taking part in U.S.-led bombing attacks against Islamic State in Iraq. (Reuters)

1:00 A.M. Two Turkish journalists face jail terms for Charlie Hebdo cover

A Turkish prosecutor is seeking prison terms for two journalists who republished the cover of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo featuring an image of the Prophet Mohammed, their newspaper said on Wednesday.

Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya, columnists at Cumhuriyet daily, both face jail terms of 4-1/2 years for allegedly "insulting people's religious values" for reprinting the caricature of Islam's prophet following the January 7 attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris that killed 12 people, Cumhuriyet said on its website, citing a copy of the indictment.

The secular Cumhuriyet faced security threats when it became one of five international publications that printed excerpts of the edition of Charlie Hebdo that appeared after the attacks to show its solidarity with the cartoonists.

"We are being threatened with prison for defending free speech," Karan told Reuters. "To threaten a journalist because he or she printed a drawing that does not include an insult can only come from a religious, authoritarian government.

"Neither of us will abandon our defence of free speech," she said, adding she has had bodyguard protection since January.

The prosecutor opened his investigation into Cumhuriyet after Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused the paper of "incitement" for publishing the Charlie Hebdo excerpts.

Davutoglu marched with world leaders in Paris after the attacks in what he said was an expression of his opposition to terrorism and warned Islamophobia could fan Muslim unrest.

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