ADEN, Yemen (AFP) — The Saudi-led coalition battling rebels in Yemen sent a “limited” force to the city of Aden Sunday, Yemeni sources said, in what would be its first ground deployment inside the country.
A spokesman for the coalition denied that a major ground force has landed, refusing to comment on “ongoing operations.”
But Yemeni government and militia forces said the several dozen troops had landed in the main southern city, with some sources saying they were engaged in fighting for its international airport.
An AFP journalist saw several men in the vicinity of the airport dressed in clean military-style clothing, wearing helmets and carrying sophisticated weaponry.
“A limited coalition force entered Aden and another force is on its way” to the port city, a Yemeni government official there told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The coalition launched airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and their allies on March 26 after they seized control of large parts of the country and advanced on Aden, where President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi had taken refuge.
Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and the Houthis — who have joined forces with army units loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh — have refused to concede territory or down arms despite international pressure.
A leading member of the so-called “popular committees” militia supporting Hadi told AFP the newly deployed troops “will start helping us in fighting the Houthis and Saleh’s forces.”
Fighting for airport
He said the troops will mainly back pro-Hadi fighters around the rebel-held airport, which has changed hands several times and was the focus of heavy fighting overnight.
Other militia commanders confirmed that a few dozen coalition soldiers, mostly Saudis and Emiratis of Yemeni origin, were on the ground in Aden.
One militia source said some 30 soldiers from coalition countries had deployed to “supervise” operations to retake the airport.
Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri denied a major ground force had landed in Aden, telling the Saudi Al-Ekhbariya news channel: “I can assure you that no (coalition) forces disembarked on the ground in Aden today.”
But, speaking to the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel, he said that the coalition “cannot comment on future or ongoing operations” and that “all options are open.”
“The coalition leadership will not spare any effort to support the resistance and achieve positive results on the ground,” Assiri said.
The coalition declared an end to its Operation Decisive Storm air strikes on April 21, saying the campaign would enter a new phase dubbed Renewal of Hope focused on political efforts, aid deliveries and “fighting terrorism.”
But air strikes have continued and the coalition has faced increasing criticism for its campaign.
At least 1,200 people have been killed in Yemen since late March and thousands more have been wounded.
Accusations of cluster bombs
Human Rights Watch on Sunday accused the coalition of using US-supplied cluster bombs in its operation, warning of the long-term danger to civilians.
The widely banned bombs contain dozens of submunitions, which sometimes do not explode, becoming de facto landmines that can kill or maim long after being dropped.
HRW said it had gathered photographs, video and other evidence indicating that cluster munitions had been used in airstrikes against the Houthi rebel stronghold of Saada province in Yemen’s northern mountains in recent weeks.
Cluster munitions are prohibited by a 2008 treaty adopted by 116 countries, but not by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners or the United States.
“Saudi-led cluster munition air strikes have been hitting areas near villages, putting local people in danger,” said HRW arms director Steve Goose.
“Saudi Arabia and other coalition members –- and the supplier, the US –- are flouting the global standard that rejects cluster munitions because of their long-term threat to civilians.”
Saudi Arabia denied it was using cluster munitions earlier in the campaign.
HRW said that the munitions used in Yemen appeared to be the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons manufactured by the Textron Systems Corporation and supplied to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the United States in recent years.
The weapon is banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions but Washington permits its use and export because it boasts an unexploded ordnance rate of less than one percent.