By AHMED AL-HAJ
SANAA, Yemen (AP) – Saudi Arabia bombed the northern stronghold of Yemen’s Shiite rebels and key military installations on Friday as a coalition led by the Gulf kingdom carried out airstrikes for a second day. The strikes hit at least six provinces, including an eastern area rich in oil and gas.
The military action is turning impoverished and chaotic Yemen into a new front in the rivalry between Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia and Shiite power Iran, which supports the rebels known as Houthis. In recent months, the Houthis have swept out of their northern strongholds and taken over Sanaa and other parts of Yemen. U.S.-backed President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country earlier this week.
Heavy airstrikes early Friday targeted Saada, the stronghold of the Houthis, focusing on locations where rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi might be, military officials said. The grave of al-Houthi’s brother Hussein al-Houthi, founder of the rebel group, was demolished in the strikes.
Saudi warplanes also bombed the al-Sana army camp in the Arhab region northeast of Sanaa, run by commanders loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. An autocrat who ruled Yemen for more than 30 years until he was ousted after a 2011 Arab Spring popular uprising, Saleh enjoys the loyalty of some of the country’s strongest military units, who now fight alongside the Houthis.
Military officials said other strikes targeted army camps outside Sanaa in al-Dhale and Lahj provinces, including al-Annad base, where about 100 U.S. military advisers had been based but were forced to withdraw last weekend due to deteriorating security conditions.
Strikes hit at least six provinces including Marib, an area of oil and gas wealth. The attacks there targeted and destroyed radars that the rebels could use to track Saudi warplanes.
The military officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief reporters.
In the capital of Sanaa, heavy airstrikes came in waves overnight. Explosions rocked the city and anti-aircraft guns were heard returning fire. At least 18 civilians, including six children, have been killed and the casualty count was expected to rise.
Saudi Arabia and fellow Sunni-led allies in the Gulf and the Middle East view the Houthi takeover as an attempt by Iran to establish a proxy on the kingdom’s southern border. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though it says it provides diplomatic and humanitarian support.
Iran has denounced the Saudi-led air campaign, saying it “considers this action a dangerous step.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said in a statement Friday that Tehran was “ready to cooperate with its brothers in the region, to make it easier for different groups in Yemen to have dialogue to protect the integrity and facilitate restoration of stability the security in that country.”
The comment came after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview that his country could provide logistical support for the Saudi-led military operation. Zarif noted that Iran respects its strategic relations with Turkey.
In the air assault codenamed “Operation Decisive Storm,” Saudi Arabia deployed some 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV reported. Also involved were aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt, though it was not clear which carried out actual strikes.
A high-level delegation from Pakistan was traveling to Saudi Arabia on Friday to hold talks on Yemen, following a meeting in Pakistan chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to assess the situation.
“If the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia is threatened, Pakistan will defend it,” Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told the country’s parliament in remarks carried live on state-run television. He said there had been no decision to take part in the Yemeni conflict.
According to defense officials in Washington, the U.S. is providing refueling tankers and surveillance flights for the Saudi operations, and there are several U.S. troops working in the operations center to help with coordination. The White House has said the U.S. was not joining with direct military action.
Rebel leader al-Houthi has accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel of launching a “criminal, unjust, brutal and sinful” campaign aimed at invading and occupying Yemen.
“Yemenis won’t accept such humiliation,” he said in a televised speech Thursday night, calling the Saudis “stupid” and “evil.”
Hadi, Yemen’s U.S.-backed president, fled the country by boat on Wednesday and arrived in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh on Thursday after transiting through Oman. He was expected to attend a meeting of Arab leaders this weekend in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Once the airstrikes have weakened the rebels and their allies, a ground invasion of Yemen is planned by Egyptian, Saudi and other forces.
The assault will come from Saudi Arabia and by landings on Yemen’s coasts along the Red and Arabian seas, according to three Egyptian military and security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the plans with the press.
Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, spokesman of Operation Decisive Storm, denied that a ground assault was part of the current operation but said the Saudis and its allies were ready “to deter any aggression of any kind.”
He told reporters in Saudi Arabia on Thursday that the airstrikes were destroying Houthi air defense systems and targeting bases, on-the-ground aircraft and ballistic missiles. Within the first 15 minutes of airstrikes, the Saudis had “complete control on the skies of Yemen,” he said.
Each air sortie was led by Saudi warplanes and included several other support aircraft with teams for refueling, early warning, reconnaissance and search and rescue.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Amir Vahdat in Tehran and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
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