Egypt, Saudi Arabia to Lead Ground Operation Against Yemen Rebels, Officials Say

Live updates: Arab foreign ministers agree to form unified military force; Yemen's president arrives in Saudi capital, after fleeing Aden; Iran demands immediate halt to Saudi-led strikes on Yemen.

AP

Saudi Arabia bombed key military installations in Yemen on Thursday, leading a regional coalition in a campaign against Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the country and drove out the president. The dramatic military assault turns impoverished, fragmented Yemen into a new front in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Egyptian military and security officials told The Associated Press that the military intervention will go further, with a ground assault into Yemen by Egyptian, Saudi and other forces, planned once airstrikes have weakened the capabilities of the rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies, military forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The strikes before dawn barraged an air base near the airport in the capital, Sanaa, as well as anti-aircraft positions and military bases — and flattened a number of homes near the airport, killing at least 18 civilians. The Houthis mobilized thousands of supporters in protests against the strikes, with one speaker lashing out at the Saudi-led coalition and warning that Yemen "will be the tomb" of the aggressors.

Iran, which is allied to the Houthis, denounced the bombing, noting the civilian deaths. Iran "considers this action a dangerous step," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in a statement. "This invasion will bear no result but expansion of terrorism and extremism throughout the whole region."

Latest updates:

9:08 P.M. Arab foreign ministers agree on unified military force

Arab foreign ministers meeting in Egypt agreed a draft resolution on Thursday to form a unified military force, in a move aimed at countering growing regional security threats.

The agreement came after warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Yemen on Thursday, in an effort to check Iranian influence in their backyard without direct military backing from Washington.

"The Arab ... ministers agreed on adopting an important principle, which is forming the unified Arab military force," Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby told reporters after the meeting in the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

"The task of the force will be rapid military intervention to deal with security threats to Arab nations," Elaraby added.

The draft resolution will be referred to the Arab leaders during their March 28-29 summit in Egypt. (Reuters)  

7:07 P.M. U.K.'s Cameron to Iran's Rohani: Nobody should be backing Houthis in Yemen

British Prime Minister David Cameron told Iranian President Hassan Rohani in a phone call on Thursday that "other countries" should not be supporting Houthi fighters in Yemen, Cameron's spokeswoman said, something Tehran is already doing.

AFP

"In order to restore stability what we need is a political process and ... as part of that other countries should not be supporting the Houthi rebels and instead be encouraging all the different parties in Yemen with different interests to come together in a political process," the spokeswoman said.

Cameron spoke with Rouhani after warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck Shi'ite Muslim rebels fighting to oust Yemen's president, in a major gamble by the world's top oil exporter to check Iranian influence in its backyard without direct military backing from Washington. (Reuters)

6:59 P.M. Yemen's president arrives in Saudi capital, after fleeing Aden

Saudi state TV says Yemen's embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has arrived in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Al-Ekhbariya TV reported Hadi arrived Thursday at a Riyadh airbase and was met by Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed, the son of King Salman. A day earlier, Hadi fled the southern Yemeni city Aden in a boat as Shiite rebels and their allies moved on the city.

Hadi's arrival comes as Saudi Arabia and its allies launched airstrikes in Yemen against the rebels, known as Houthis, and forces loyal to Hadi's predecessor, ousted autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Hadi is expected to attend an Arab summit in Egypt that starts Saturday. His route from Aden to Riyadh was not immediately known. The Houthis' TV network reported that he arrived in Oman earlier Thursday. (AP)

6:44 P.M. Russia's Putin to Iran: Immediate ceasefire needed in Yemen

Russia's President Vladimir Putin called for an "immediate cessation of military activities" in Yemen in phone conversations with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, the Kremlin said in a statement on Thursday.

Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim Houthi militias have seized large parts of Yemen. The conflict deepened on Thursday when warplanes from Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia attacked Houthi positions in Yemen, drawing protests from Tehran.

Putin and Rouhani also discussed six-power negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, expressing hopes for a successful outcome to talks in Lausanne, the Kremlin statement said. (Reuters)

6:02 P.M. Turkey's president: Iran and 'terrorist groups' must leave Yemen

President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted on Thursday as saying Turkey may consider providing logistical support to the Saudi-led military mission in Yemen and called on Iran and "terrorist groups" to withdraw from the country.

"Turkey may consider providing logistical support based on the evolution of the situation," Erdogan told France 24 in an interview, extracts of which were published on its website and by Turkish broadcasters.

"Iran and the terrorist groups must withdraw," he said. (Reuters)

5:07 P.M. Report: Yemen shuts major ports due to conflict

Yemen shut its major seaports on Thursday, industry and local sources said, after neighboring Saudi Arabia and Arab allies launched air strikes against Iran-allied Houthi forces fighting Yemen's Western-backed president.

Warplanes bombed sites near Houthi-held capital Sanaa and their positions near the Saudi border. In the south, Houthis and army loyalists battled with militiamen loyal to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi near the port city of Aden.

"All major seaports were shut down on Thursday due to the rising conflict," said an industry source. Local sources in Yemen confirmed the closure.

The U.S. coast guard issued restrictions on some vessels arriving into the United States from a number of Yemeni ports that "do not maintain effective anti-terrorism measures", according to a statement.

Yemen exports about 1.4-1.5 million barrels of Masila crude each month, mainly to China.

The ports closed include Aden, Al Mukalla, Al Mokha and Al Hudaydah, the sources said, giving no further details.

"It looks like no one is working at the ports across Yemen today," a shipping industry source told Reuters.

On Wednesday, public sector workers in Aden were instructed to return home and some residents armed themselves as the conflict between Hadi's supporters and the Houthis and their allies came to a head.

The U.S. coast guard said conditions of entry would be imposed on vessels arriving from al-Shehr and Al Hudaydah. (Reuters)

4:53 P.M. Egypt: Ground operation planned in Yemen

Egyptian security and military officials say Saudi Arabia and Egypt will lead a ground operation in Yemen against Shiite rebels and their allies after a campaign of airstrikes to weaken them.

Three senior officials tell The Associated Press that forces would enter by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from the Red Sea and Arabian Sea. They said Thursday that other nations will also be involved.

They would not specify troop numbers or say when the operation would start, only that it would be after airstrikes weaken the rebels and allied forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

They say the offensive aims to push the rebels into negotiations on power sharing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. (AP)

4:47 P.M. Hezbollah sees Yemen strikes causing more Mideast tension

Lebanon's Hezbollah condemned as "unjust aggression" Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen on Thursday and said it takes the region towards increased tension.

The Shi'ite group, which is backed by Iran, also called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to immediately and unconditionally halt the strikes.

"This adventure, (which) lacks wisdom and legal and legitimate justification and which is led by Saudi Arabia, is taking the region towards increased tension and dangers for the future and the present of the region," its statement said.

"We see that this aggression secures American interests and offers a great favor for the Zionist enemy," it said, a reference to Israel. (Reuters)

1:15 P.M. Four Egyptian naval vessels en route to secure Gulf of Aden

Four Egyptian naval vessels have crossed the Suez Canal en route to Yemen to secure the Gulf of Aden, maritime sources at the Suez Canal said on Thursday.

The sources said they expected the vessels to reach the Red Sea by Thursday evening.

Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck the Shi'ite Muslim rebels fighting to oust Yemen's president on Thursday, a gamble by the world's top oil exporter to check Iranian influence in its backyard without direct military backing from Washington. (Reuters)

11:45 A.M. Syrian media: Saudi-led action in Yemen is "blatant aggression"

The Syrian state news agency said a Saudi-led military operation launched in Yemen on Thursday was an act of "blatant aggression."

"Gulf war planes led by the regime of the Saudi family launch a blatant aggression on Yemen," read a headline carried on the website of the state news agency SANA.

The Syrian crisis now in its fifth year has been another major theatre where Saudi-Iranian rivalry has played out in a regional conflict that has taken on a sectarian dimension pitching Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim against each other.

Shi'ite Islamist-led Iran has given military and financial backing to the Syrian government led by Assad, a member of the Shi'ite-linked Alawite sect. (Reuters)

Iran says it will make "all efforts to control the crisis in Yemen"

Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif called for an immediate halt to the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen on Thursday. "The Saudi-led air strikes should stop immediately and it is against Yemen's sovereignty," the Students News Agency quoted Zarif as saying.

"We will make all efforts to control crisis in Yemen," Zarif said, according to the agency's report from the Swiss city of Lausanne, where he is negotiating with world powers on curbing Iran's nuclear program.

Earlier on Thursday, the Foreign Ministry in Tehran called for an immediate end to the military operations.

"Iran wants an immediate halt to all military aggressions and air strikes against Yemen and its people," Fars quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying.

"Military actions in Yemen, which faces a domestic crisis, ... will further complicate the situation ... and will hinder efforts to resolve the crisis through peaceful ways."

Afkham warned that the Saudi-led "aggression is a dangerous move which is in violation of international responsibilities for respecting the sovereignty of countries.
"It will lead to spread of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East region," Fars quoted her as saying. (Reuters)

11:00 A.M. Saudis suspend flights at southern airports amid Yemen strikes

Saudi Arabia has suspended international and domestic flights at seven airports in its south, aviation authorities said on Thursday after Riyadh and allied Gulf governments launched air strikes against Houthi fighters in Yemen.

The airports affected include Jizan, Abha and Wadi al- Dawaser, the General Authority of Civil Aviation said in a brief statement. It did not give a reason for the suspension or say when it might be lifted. (Reuters)

7:50 A.M. Yemen presidential loyalists retake Aden airport after clashes

Loyalists of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi retook Aden airport on Thursday after heavy clashes with forces allied to Houthi fighters opposed to his rule, a local official said.

Hadi's men lost control of the southern city's airport on Wednesday to troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of the Houthis and a still-powerful figure in Yemen despite his departure from office in 2011. (Reuters)

1:09 A.M. Report: Files about U.S. intelligence operations taken by Yemen rebels

Yemeni intelligence files containing information about U.S.-supported counterterrorism operations and the names of informants have been looted by Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday.

The newspaper, citing U.S. officials, said the information was taken when the Houthi fighters seized the office of Yemen's National Security Bureau, which had worked with the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

It added that intelligence officials believed additional files were given to Iranian advisers by Yemeni officials supporting the rebels.

The paper said there was no sign, however, that the Houthi militias had gained direct control of U.S. intelligence files.

But it said the loss of the intelligence played a role in the Obama administration's move to evacuate its remaining personnel from Yemen last weekend, including about 100 special operations forces. The report did not say when the files were seized.

The end of a U.S. security presence inside the country has dealt a blow to Washington's ability to monitor and fight al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.

The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies declined comment on the Los Angeles Times report. (Reuters)