SANAA/ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) – Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck 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.
Riyadh’s rival Iran denounced the assault on the Houthi militia group, which it backs, and made clear the kingdom’s deployment of a Sunni coalition against Shi’ite enemies would complicate efforts to end a conflict likely to inflame the sectarian animosities fuelling wars around the Middle East.
But a senior Iranian official ruled out military intervention.
Warplanes bombed the main airport and the nearby al Dulaimi military air base of the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, residents said, in an apparent attempt to weaken the Houthis’ air power and ability to fire missiles.
A Reuters witness said four or five houses near Sanaa airport had been damaged. Rescue workers put the death toll from the air strikes at 13, including a doctor who had been pulled from the rubble of a damaged clinic.
Warplanes struck Houthi fighters near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, tribal and Houthi sources told Reuters.
Yemen’s crisis is escalating, with Iran backing the Houthis, and Sunni Muslim monarchies in the Gulf supporting Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his fellow Sunni loyalists in Yemen’s south.
“We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling,” Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, told a news conference in Washington.
In Aden, a local official reported that fighters loyal to Hadi retook the airport, a day after it was captured by forces allied to the Houthis advancing on the city. The facility remains closed and flights are canceled. Said Arabia also canceled flights to its southern airports.
Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that the kingdom was contributing 100 warplanes to operation “Storm of Resolve” and more than 85 were provided by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.
Jordan and Sudan said their forces were involved in the operation. Egyptian naval and air forces were participating, with four naval ships en route to secure the Gulf of Aden.
Pakistan was considering a request to send ground forces.
A Saudi official familiar with defense matters told Reuters that a “land offensive might be needed to restore order.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry demanded an immediate halt to the “aggression and air strikes” in Yemen, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
“Military actions in Yemen … will further complicate the situation,” Fars quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters: “Iran will use all possible political ways to allay tension in Yemen. Military intervention is not an option for Tehran.”
A United Arab Emirates official expressed Gulf Arab concerns about Iranian influence in Yemen.
“The strategic change in the region benefits Iran and we cannot be silent about the fact that the Houthis carry their banner,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash wrote on Twitter.
The other Arab countries along with Pakistan reported to be willing to take part in the operation are also mostly Sunni.
Saud al-Sarhan, director of research at King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh: “It is a clear message on the ‘Saudi defense doctrine’. Security and stability in the Arabian Peninsula is a red line, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t tolerate any attempt to destabilize the region.”
PRESIDENT “IN HIGH SPIRITS”
Yemen’s slide towards civil war has made it a crucial front in Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Tehran, which Riyadh accuses of stirring up sectarian strife throughout the region and in Yemen with its support for the Houthis. Iran publicly denies funding and training the Houthis.
Fighting has spread across Yemen since last September, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and began to fan out across the country, forcing Hadi out of the capital.
Ambassador Jubeir said the assaults had been launched in response to a request by Hadi, who had supported Washington’s campaign of drone strikes against al Qaeda’s Yemen branch.
The White House said it supported the operation and that President Barack Obama had authorized U.S. “logistical and intelligence support”. U.S. forces were not involved in direct military action in Yemen, a National Security Council spokeswoman said. France and Britain also backed the operation.
The Saudi-led strikes in Yemen coincided with an escalation of American involvement in Iraq, where U.S. planes carried out air strikes to support the drive to oust Islamic State militants from Tikrit.
Hadi has been holed up Aden with loyalist forces since he fled Houthi custody in February.
An aides said Hadi was in the city and was in high spirits. An Aden official later said Hadi loyalists had retaken the southern city’s airport.
A Houthi leader said the air strikes would set off a “wide war” in the region.
Houthi-run al-Masirah television said the air strikes had hit a residential neighborhood north of Sanaa and caused dozens of casualties. It also urged medical personnel to report to hospitals in Sanaa immediately.
Al-Masirah footage showed the body of a girl and several of the wounded, including an unidentified man who wept as he said the air strikes had killed his son and destroyed his home.
It interviewed one witness who said: “Why are you hitting Yemeni civilians, women and children?”
No independent verification of casualties was possible.
A widening Yemen conflict could also pose risks for global oil supplies, and Brent crude oil prices surged more than 4 percent on Thursday. Kuwait stepped up security at its oil installations.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle, Yeganeh Torbati and Sandra Mahle in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS, Mohammed Mukhashaf in ADEN, Mohammed Ghobari and Noah Browning in DUBAI and Osamu Tsukimori in TOKYO; Writing by Noah Browning and William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)