Saudi Arabia launches airstrikes against Yemen rebels

Supported by US, Riyadh says it will defend ‘legitimate government’; Houthi militias reportedly provide Iran with looted US intel in major security breach

A US-made F-15 fighter jet flown by the Royal Saudi Air Force (YouTube screen capture)
A US-made F-15 fighter jet flown by the Royal Saudi Air Force (YouTube screen capture)

Saudi Arabia has launched a military operation against Shiite rebels threatening the government in Yemen, the kingdom’s ambassador to the US said Wednesday night, as five Gulf states said they would protect embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times reported that the Houthi rebels had provided Iran with looted information on US intelligence operations in the embattled nation as well as the identities of informants, severely compromising American intelligence networks in the region.

The LA Times reported that the stolen intelligence information was obtained by militias after they took over the capital Sanaa in February and raided the National Security Bureau, which was cooperating with the CIA against al-Qaeda elements in the country.

According to the report the security breach played a key role in the American decision to pull US special forces out of the country last weekend, evacuate embassy staff and halt drone strikes in the nation

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Washington that the military operation was intended “to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country.”

Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, March 25, 2015 (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, March 25, 2015 (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Four other nations — Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE — joined Saudi Arabia in saying they “have decided to answer the call of President Hadi to protect Yemen and his people from the aggression of the Houthi militia.” It was not immediately clear what the the involvement of the Saudi allies would entail.

Al-Jubeir said that for the moment the action was confined to air strikes on various targets around Yemen, but that other military assets were being mobilized and that the coalition “would do whatever it takes.”

The ambassador said he would not go into detail about the support being provided by Saudi Arabia’s allies, but added “we consulted very closely with many of our allies and in particular with the United States.

“We are very pleased with the outcome of those discussions,” he said.

“We have a situation where you have a militia group that is now in control or can be in control of ballistic missiles, heavy weapons and an air force,” he said, arguing that the Huthi advance could not be tolerated.

Al-Jubeir said that the legitimate government of Yemen was involved in a political process that had the support of the international community and that no “outside militia” would be allowed to interfere with that.

The US said it was coordinating closely with Saudi Arabia and its regional allies in their military action, including providing intelligence and logistical support.

“President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to (the) military operations,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.

US forces were not taking direct military action in Yemen, she stressed, but were “establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support.”

“We strongly urge the Houthis to halt immediately their destabilizing military actions and return to negotiations as part of the political dialogue,” added Meehan.

Yemen has been gripped by growing turmoil since the Houthi rebels launched a power takeover in Sanaa in February.

The strife has raised fears Yemen could be torn apart by a proxy war between Shiite Iran, accused of backing the rebels, and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which supports Hadi.

Rebels have closed in on the city of Aden, where Hadi took refuge after fleeing the capital Sanaa. Yemen’s acting foreign minister Riyad Yassin warned Wednesday that the fall of Aden would mean the “start of civil war” as he drummed up Arab military support for Hadi.

Earlier Wednesday security and port officials in Aden said Hadi had fled his country by boat as Shiite rebels and their allies advance on this southern city.

The officials told The Associated Press that Hadi left with his aides after 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

The entourage departed by two boats, under heavy security. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Rebel forces seized a key airbase just 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Aden on Wednesday, days after US military personnel were evacuated from the site.

Yemen has allowed Washington to wage a long-standing drone war against al-Qaeda militants in the impoverished country, which borders oil-rich Saudi Arabia and lies close to key shipping routes.

Dozens of people have been killed as the Houthi militia, backed by troops allied to former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, have clashed with pro-Hadi forces as they push southwards.

Saleh, who resigned in 2012 following nationwide protests, has been accused of backing the Shiite rebels as he seeks to regain influence.

Yemen is increasingly divided between a north controlled by the Houthis and a south dominated by Hadi supporters.

Meanwhile the rival Islamic State jihadist group claimed its first attack in Yemen on Friday with suicide bombings against Houthi supporters that killed 142 people in the capital.

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