The conflict in Yemen looked set to escalate after the country’s exiled government asked the United Nations on Thursday to send ground forces to save the strategic southern port city of Aden from imminent capture by Iran-backed rebels, who’ve advanced despite intense aerial bombing by a Saudi-led coalition.
An estimated 120 people, most of them civilians unable to escape, were killed Wednesday in intense fighting in Aden, adding to international pressure on Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners to halt the air raids temporarily so that stranded Yemenis may flee urban war zones and U.N. humanitarian supplies can be flown in from adjacent Djibouti, where the U.S. has a military base.
After talks Thursday in Riyadh with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, former ambassador to the United States, said the coalition would halt its Yemen-wide air campaign for five days, but only if the rebels agreed to a cease-fire. The rebels haven’t yet responded.
Saudi Arabia has rebuffed a U.N. appeal to permanently cease bombing Yemen’s airports, particularly in Sanaa, the capital, where the U.N. wants to establish a base for humanitarian operations. Instead, Saudi King Salman announced Tuesday that a rival center would be set up in the kingdom and invited the U.N. to use it.
The Saudi proposal for a five-day lull in fighting came shortly after Yemen’s ambassador to the U.N., Khaled al Yemany, wrote to U.N. Security Council members, asking them to “quickly intervene by land forces” to save the southern Yemen cities of Aden and Taiz from being captured by Iran-backed Houthi rebels and allied mutinous army units loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Qatar, a member of the Saudi-led military coalition of 11 mostly Arab countries, is expected to propose a resolution to the Security Council seeking approval for ground force deployments in Yemen. Approval seems assured: A resolution authorizing the air campaign was quickly passed in late March with Western support, after Russia, a key Iran ally in the Middle East, agreed to abstain.
The U.S., Britain and France have since provided intelligence and logistics support to the Saudi-led fleet of more than 100 advanced warplanes flying bombing missions over Yemen.
The coalition’s mostly nighttime sorties have deprived the rebels of heavy weaponry, including missiles taken from the Yemen military, but they haven’t prevented the rebels from consolidating their hold over western Yemen, including Aden, a political stronghold of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He fled the port city in late March to avoid being taken prisoner by rebels besieging the presidential palace there and is thought to be in Saudi Arabia.
The rebels advanced Wednesday into Aden’s Tawahi district, where Yemen’s major commercial port is, and seized the palace. In Geneva, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, said Thursday that scores of people had been killed in Wednesday’s fighting, including “civilians . . . reportedly targeted while they were trying to flee to safer areas.”
Fierce fighting has engulfed Aden’s airport since Sunday, when fighters loyal to the Hadi government were reinforced by troops trained in special operations warfare by the Saudi-led coalition.
Led by Saudi and Sudanese advisers, the pro-government commandos have been tasked with establishing a beachhead at the airport for the arrival from Saudi Arabia of additional troops, who are expected to push northward in coordination with forces attacking from the Saudi border, according to military analysts focused on the Middle East.
The coalition is also seeking to isolate the rebels domestically. Hadi on Tuesday called a meeting May 17 of southern separatists, northern tribes opposed to the rebels and defectors from former President Saleh’s General People’s Congress party.
The rebels responded with their push into other strategically important parts of Aden and by shelling Saudi border towns with mortars and missiles Tuesday and Wednesday, killing 10 people.
Saudi Arabia retaliated with strikes on rebel positions in Yemen, and the coalition’s spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al Asseri, said in a television interview late Wednesday that a retaliatory land operation was possible.
More than 100 Saudi soldiers died in a 2009-10 border war with the Houthi militia.
McClatchy special correspondent John Zarocostas contributed to this article from Geneva.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @tomthehack