Middle East Updates / India Asks Saudi to Help Evacuate Citizens From Yemen

Coalition spokesman: Saudi-led forces block Yemen ports; Turkey helped Islamists take Idlib, Syrian military source accuses; Report: 21 killed after airstrike hits refugee camp in northern Yemen.

AP

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Latest updates:

8:56 P.M. India asks Saudi to help evacuate citizens from Yemen

India asked Saudi Arabia on Monday to help evacuate its citizens from Yemen, where more than 4,000 Indians, over half of them nurses, are caught up in fighting.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office said he had spoken by telephone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and requested Riyadh's "support and cooperation in the evacuation of Indian citizens from Yemen".

King Salman assured Modi of all possible assistance to help them leave, it said in a statement.  

7:44 P.M. Coalition spokesman: Saudi-led forces block Yemen ports

The spokesman for the Saudi-led campaign against Yemeni rebels says coalition naval forces have besieged the country's ports.

Ahmed Asiri told reporters Monday that the naval forces are blocking the movement of ships to prevent weapons and fighters from entering or leaving Yemen.

Asiri, speaking from the Saudi capital Riyadh, spoke on the fifth day of airstrikes targeting Shiite rebels known as Houthis and allied forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis and their allies seized the capital Sanaa last September and the internationally recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country last week.

Iran supports the rebels, but both Tehran and the Houthis have denied that it arms them. Read full story (AP)

5:54 P.M. Turkey helped Islamists take Idlib, Syrian military source accuses

A Syrian military source accused Turkey on Monday of helping Islamist rebels to stage an assault on Idlib, a provincial capital which fighters seized at the weekend.

The source declined to comment on the situation in Idlib, citing security considerations, but a monitoring group has confirmed the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and allies now control Idlib and said the Syrian air force bombed the city on Monday.

The fall of Idlib, 30 km (20 miles) from the Turkish border, marks only the second time in the Syrian civil war that Damascus has lost control of a provincial capital. The first was Raqqa, which the ultra-radical Islamic State group has turned into the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Echoing more general comments by President Bashar Assad, the military source accused both Turkey and Jordan of supporting the insurgents in their Idlib offensive, saying they were "leading operations and planning them". The insurgents were using advanced communication apparatus that had been supplied to them via Turkey, the source added.

The Turkish foreign ministry declined to comment. Read full story here (Reuters)

5:12 P.M. Warships shell Houthis outside Yemeni city of Aden

Warships shelled a column of Houthi fighters and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as they tried to advance on the southern port city of Aden on Monday, residents said, the first known report of naval forces taking part in the conflict.

They said the vessels were believed to be Egyptian warships that sailed last week through the Suez Canal toward the Gulf of Aden. Egypt is a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has been targeting Houthi positions to stem their advance on Aden, a last foothold of fighters loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

No comment was immediately available from Egyptian officials. (Reuters) 

2:38 P.M. 21 killed after airstrike hits refugee camp in northern Yemen, humanitarian workers say

An airstrike hit the area of the Mazraq refugee camp in the northern Yemen district of Haradh on Monday, killing 21 people, humanitarian workers told Reuters.

One humanitarian official said the bombing had targeted a military installation in the vicinity. (Reuters)

2:06 P.M. Iran's Revolutionary Guard claims U.S. drone kills two advisers in Iraq; U.S. denies claim

Iran's Revolutionary Guard says a U.S. drone strike has killed two of its advisers in Iraq, though the U.S. says it has only struck militants in its campaign.

The claim comes as negotiators on Monday attempted to reach a deal on Iran's contested nuclear program.

The Guard said on its sepahnews.ir website the strike happened March 23, just after the U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes to support Iraqi forces trying to retake the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit. It identified the dead as Ali Yazdani and Hadi Jafari, saying they were buried Sunday. It called them advisers.

Reached by The Associated Press, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said: "The international coalition is aimed at Daesh only," using an alternate Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. (AP)

1:53 P.M. Yemen's Houthi rebels advance near Aden amid heavy clashes

Iran-allied Houthi militiamen pushed into the northeastern suburbs of the Yemeni port city of Aden on Monday amid heavy clashes with loyalists of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, sources on both sides said.

Artillery and rocket fire struck the area around the Alam roundabout near the city's airport, Hadi's fighters said, after the Houthis advanced along an Arabian Sea coast road.

Aden is Hadi's last bastion of control in Yemen and remains besieged despite a fifth day of Saudi-led air strikes aimed at checking the Houthi advance. (Reuters) 

12:53 P.M. Turkey's Erdogan plans to visit Iran but watching Yemen developments

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday he still plans to visit Iran next week, but is watching the crisis in Yemen, which has heightened diplomatic tensions between Ankara and Tehran.

Cancelling the trip would mark a further deterioration in relations between the two neighbors, who are at odds over the conflict in Syria and the crisis in Yemen, where Ankara supports a Saudi Arabian-led operation against Iran-backed Houthi forces.

"For the moment we are sticking to our Iranian program unchanged, but we are monitoring Yemen," Erdogan told a news conference in Istanbul.

"Developments in Yemen are important. There could be steps that necessitate us making every kind of decision."

Erdogan accused Iran last week of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts had begun to annoy Turkey. He called on it to withdraw its forces from Yemen and stop supporting the Shi'ite Houthi militia. (Reuters) 

12:30 P.M. Assad: ISIS has expanded since U.S. began airstrikes

Syrian President Bashar Assad says the Islamic State group has been expanding since a U.S.-led coalition began its airstrikes on the group in Iraq and Syria last year.

In an interview with CBS News aired Sunday night, Assad said IS has been gaining more recruits with some estimates showing "1,000 recruits every month in Syria."

Assad, using an alternative acronym for the IS group, said in the interview: "If you want to talk in terms of ISIS, actually ISIS has expanded since the beginning of the strikes."

Assad added that IS has established a presence in Libya and that militant groups in Egypt and Yemen have claimed allegiance or loyalty to the group. (AP)

12:23 P.M. Assad: Russia supplying Syria with arms under deals signed since conflict began

Russia is supplying weapons to Damascus under contracts completed since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, as well as under earlier deals, President Bashar Assad said.

Assad's comments, in an interview published by Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on Monday, appeared to contradict remarks by Moscow suggesting any Russian arms supplies to Damascus were agreed before the conflict began.

"There are contracts that had been sealed before the crisis started and were carried out during the crisis. There are other agreements on arms supplies and cooperation that were signed during the crisis and are being carried out now," Assad said.

"They went through some changes to take into account the type of fighting the Syrian army carries out against the terrorists," he said in the full text of the interviews, excerpts of which were published last week.

Assad gave no details of the weapons being supplied by Russia, the world's second-biggest arms exporter, since the start of the conflict which has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions.

Russia's Defense Ministry, contacted by telephone, declined immediate comment. (Reuters)

10:54 A.M. 14 killed in car crash in Egypt's southern Sohag province

A senior Egyptian security official says 14 people have been killed and seven injured in a car crash involving three vehicles in the southern province of Sohag.

Sohag's security chief, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Saber, said the crash happened Sunday night on the desert road between Sohag and the Red Sea. Saber says three children are among the dead and three of the injured are in critical condition.

He says a truck driver lost control and crashed into a microbus and a car coming from the opposite direction.

Deadly traffic crashes claim thousands of lives in Egypt every year. They are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or a lack of regular vehicle maintenance. The collisions killed about 13,000 people in Egypt in 2013. (AP) 

10:08 A.M. India readys evacuation of up to 500 nationals from Yemen's capital

India was readying the evacuation of up to 500 nationals from the capital of Yemen on Monday, after four nights of Saudi-led airstrikes against Iranian-backed forces whose advances forced the president to flee.

An Air India Airbus A-321, with capacity to carry 180 passengers, flew on Monday morning from New Delhi to Muscat, Oman, and was awaiting clearance to fly on to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, a spokesman for the flag carrier said.

India on Sunday airlifted 80 nationals from Sanaa to Djibouti, on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Aden. An estimated 2,500-3,000 nationals are believed to be living in or near the capital.

"More than 500 are on a list ready to fly," said Dilbagh Singh, a counsellor at the Indian embassy in Sanaa who was organising the evacuation effort. "They are at their homes but can be at the airport within an hour."

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that India had obtained permission to operate flights from Sanaa for up to three hours a day. If the Air India flight gets clearance it would return to New Delhi on Monday night.

An Indian navy patrol vessel involved in anti-piracy operations was also heading for the port of Aden, where a smaller Indian community is based.

The patrol vessel has capacity to evacuate 150-200 people, MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said. A larger vessel with the capacity for 1,500 people would arrive in around five days. (Reuters) 

9:53 A.M. UN's Ban Ki-moon to meet with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Baghdad on Monday for meetings with Iraq's leaders, a UN official confirmed.

"The secretary general will meet Iraqi leaders to discuss the political and security developments in the country," the official said, who was not authorized to speak about the UN chief's visit. Ban was last in Iraq in August.

The secretary general's visit comes as Iraq remains mired in war with the militant group Islamic State, which occupies nearly one-third of the country. (Reuters) 

7:31 A.M. Warplanes attack Sanaa, Yemen throughout night, strikes continue after daybreak

Warplanes struck Yemen's capital Sanaa overnight and after daybreak on Monday, residents said, on the fifth day of a campaign by Saudi-led forces against Houthi forces opposed to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

One of the residents said the strikes appeared mainly focused around the diplomatic quarter of the capital. (Reuters)

6:40 A.M. China evacuating its citizens from Yemen, ending anti-piracy patrols in region

China is evacuating its citizens from Yemen and suspending anti-piracy patrols in the area amid the growing violence in the Middle Eastern country.

Three Chinese navy ships were diverted to the port of Aden to rescue about 500 Chinese nationals caught in the conflict, state media reported on Monday, marking only the second time Chinese military assets have been used in such a mission.

China took the unprecedented step of dispatching one of its most sophisticated warships and military transport aircraft to help in the evacuation of about 35,000 Chinese citizens amid Libya's civil war in 2011.

No Chinese have been reported killed or injured in the fighting in Yemen that now threatens a potentially dangerous clash between U.S.-allied Arab states and Iran.

The official China Shipowners' Association said on its website that it had been notified that China was temporarily halting its participation in multinational patrols in the Gulf of Aden aimed at countering Somali pirates.

The notice said it wasn't clear when the patrols would resume and Defense Ministry spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment. (AP)

Sunday night:

11:06 P.M. Arab leaders vow to continue Yemen airstrikes, unveil plans for joint Arab defense force

A two-day Arab summit ended Sunday with a vow to defeat Iranian-backed Shi'ite rebels in Yemen and the formal unveiling of plans to form a joint Arab intervention force, setting the stage for a potentially dangerous clash between U.S.-allied Arab states and Tehran over influence in the region.

Arab leaders taking turns to address the gathering spoke repeatedly of the threat posed to the region's Arab identity by what they called moves by "foreign" or "outside parties" to stoke sectarian, ethnic or religious rivalries in Arab states — all thinly-veiled references to Iran, which has in recent years consolidated its hold in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and now Yemen.

The summit's final communique made similarly vague references, but the Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, was unequivocal during a news conference later, singling out Iran for what he said was its intervention "in many nations."

A summit resolution said the newly unveiled joint Arab defense force would be deployed at the request of any Arab nation facing a national security threat and that it would also be used to combat terrorist groups. (AP) Read the full story