UN envoy Benomar sought to legitimize Houthi coup: Yemen FM

Jamal Benomar, the former UN special envoy to Yemen, speaks during a press conference in Sana’a, Yemen, on December 24, 2013. (AFP/Mohammed Huwais)
Jamal Benomar, the former UN special envoy to Yemen, speaks during a press conference in Sana’a, Yemen, on December 24, 2013. (AFP/Mohammed Huwais)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemen’s legitimate government has accused Jamal Benomar, the UN’s former special envoy to Yemen, of siding with the Houthi movement during UN-sponsored talks between the country’s different political factions earlier in the year.

Benomar was tasked by the UN to oversee negotiations aimed at ending Yemen’s political crisis after the Houthis seized control of the capital Sana’a in September of 2014 and then launched a coup against Yemen’s internationally recognized president and government in February.

Speaking over the phone from his residence in London on Monday, Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin told Asharq Al-Awsat that the way Benomar had handled the talks had effectively legitimized the Houthi coup against Yemen’s legitimate President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Yassin said Benomar was biased towards the Houthis and insisted on continuing the talks despite both President Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah being placed under virtual house arrest at the time by the Houthis’ militias.

Yassin added that he had asked Benomar to suspend the talks until both Hadi and Bahah were released, but Benomar refused, saying: “The dialogue will continue and the most important point is that a deal, no matter what kind it is, gets signed,” according to the Yemeni FM.

Yassin accused Benomar of seeking personal success in his haste to persuade Yemen’s political factions to sign a power-sharing deal regardless of whether it would be implemented or not.

He also dismissed Benomar’s recent comments to the Wall Street Journal. The former UN envoy told the publication a political deal in Yemen was close before the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis began on March 26.

Yassin said these comments amounted to “lies.”

Benomar, Yassin claimed, also backed the Houthis in their rejection of moving the talks outside Sana’a, the Shi’ite group’s new seat of power, despite Hadi’s complaints to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“As a neutral international mediator, [Benomar] should have maintained the same distance from all political factions in Yemen,” Yassin said. He argued that the Houthis should not have been included as a legitimate side in the talks in the first place given their recent violations and acts of aggression against the Yemeni people.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, a Yemeni source said the Houthis had hosted Benomar in their northern stronghold of Saada while their militia occupied Sana’a in September.

During the three-day visit to the northern province, Benomar met with Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, the source maintained.

Benomar resigned as UN Special Adviser on Yemen in mid-April after failing to reach a power-sharing deal to end the crisis in the country.

Yemen: Decisive Storm comes to an end, Restoring Hope begins

Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri speaks to reporters gathered at the Riyadh Airbase in Saudi Arabia, as he announces the end of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led air campaign targeting Houthi militias in Yemen, on April 21, 2015. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Meshal Al-Qudair)
Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri speaks to reporters gathered at the Riyadh Airbase in Saudi Arabia, as he announces the end of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led air campaign targeting Houthi militias in Yemen, on April 21, 2015. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Meshal Al-Qudair)

Riyadh and Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—After almost four weeks of airstrikes, the Saudi-led coalition targeting the Houthi movement in Yemen announced that Operation Decisive Storm had come to an end on midnight Tuesday—though the latest reports from Yemen suggest another round of airstrikes restarted on Wednesday following acts of aggression by Houthi militias.

On Tuesday evening, Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri announced that the campaign, which saw some 2,400 airstrikes launched in under four weeks, had now fulfilled all its strategic objectives—to weaken the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement’s militias and forces loyal to their ally, ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and their grip on the country.

He said the sea blockade currently being enforced by the coalition’s members—which in addition to the Kingdom include Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Egypt—would continue and stressed that all ships passing through the strategic Bab El-Mandeb strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden in the country’s south would continue to be searched thoroughly.

He also warned that the end of the airstrikes signaled an act of goodwill by the coalition, but that they would continue to remain vigilant in the face of further possible acts of aggression by the Houthis and their allies.

Also on Tuesday evening, Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi gave a televised speech from the Saudi capital Riyadh, announcing he had requested the strikes come to an end. The operation, which began last month, was commenced as a result of a request by Hadi to the Kingdom and other Arab countries to intervene with military force in Yemen.

Hadi also thanked Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz, and all the members of the coalition for their swift response and for “standing by the Yemeni people” and the legitimate political authority in the country—represented by Hadi and premier, and now also vice president, Khaled Bahah and his cabinet.

He said “full responsibility” for the current events in Yemen fell upon the Houthis “and all who allied with them”—an implicit reference to former president Saleh and Iran, whom Saudi Arabia, their allies, and the international community accuse of conspiring with the Houthis and aiding their coup, which the group launched in February.

In a joint statement on Tuesday evening, members of the coalition said a new operation, dubbed “Restoring Hope,” had now begun and would concentrate on restarting political dialogue in Yemen in accordance with last week’s UN Resolution 2214 as well as the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and the Gulf Initiative, both held during 2013 to set a political road map for the country’s post-Arab Spring future.

However, there have been reports from Yemen on Wednesday that a new round of coalition airstrikes began in the country after aggression by Houthi militias, who have reportedly continued to move tanks toward the southern port city of Aden and have seized another government compound in the coastal city of Taiz on the Red Sea.

Reports on Wednesday also suggest the Houthis have released Yemen’s Defense Minister Gen. Mahmoud Al-Subaihi, who last month escaped a Houthi-imposed house arrest but was later recaptured by the group’s militias.

Hadi and Premier and Vice President Bahah were also placed under house arrest last month. Both eventually managed to escape to Aden, with Hadi later heading to Riyadh to request military intervention in the country.

The Houthis, backed by Iran and Saleh, began their advance throughout Yemen back in September of 2014, taking over government buildings, media outlets, and military installations in the capital Sana’a after their followers staged a month-long series of mass protests in the city.

Later in February, the group announced it was launching a coup, the so-called “Constitutional Declaration,” which gave the Houthis a unilaterally declared mandate to form a new cabinet and an interim presidential council to govern the country’s affairs.

Arafat Madabish contributed additional reporting from Sana’a.

Yemen: Houthis in retreat, UN calls for ceasefire

Saudi military spokesman Ahmed Asiri briefs journalists on the Saudi-led coalition's strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Saudi military spokesman Ahmed Asiri briefs journalists on the Saudi-led coalition’s strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the fighting in Yemen on Thursday as Saudi Arabia announced that it had foiled a Houthi attempt to infiltrate its territory, with an unidentified number of Houthi fighters surrendering to Saudi troops.

“I am calling for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen by all parties,” Ban said in comments at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday. “The Saudis have assured me that they understand there must be a political process. I call on all Yemenis to participate, and in good faith,” he added.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is sponsoring Yemen peace talks, set to be held in Riyadh within the coming month, to resolve the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Although the talks were in the planning stages before the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, the conference is now being billed as a vital part of ending the ongoing conflict in Yemen. However it is not yet clear whether the Houthis will attend, with the GCC and legitimate president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi imposing a number of stringent conditions for attending the talks, including calling for the Houthis to put down their arms and explicitly recognize Hadi as Yemen’s president.

Meanwhile, well-informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Houthi fighters had sought to cross Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia on Thursday but had been stopped by Saudi security forces.

Operation Decisive Storm spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri confirmed that the Houthis are in retreat in a number of areas across the country and are lacking “command and control” following coalition airstrikes.

He described Houthi attacks as being “random individual operations” lacking broader coordination, adding that coalition forces have recently stepped up their attacks on Houthi targets.

Asiri confirmed that coalition forces are now focusing on attacking Houthi militia brigades and allied fighters, including brigades loyal to ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. He said that many Yemeni military units that had initially sided with the Houthis have now abandoned the coup and announced their support for President Hadi following coalition airstrikes.

Commander of Yemen’s 135th Brigade, based out of Hadhramaut in the east of the country, announced on Thursday that his men—consisting of around 4,000 soldiers—had abandoned the Saleh-Houthi coup and are now backing Hadi. Lt. Yahya Abu Oja made the comments to Al-Hadath news channel, adding that he expected many other Yemeni military units that had defected from the central government to abandon “Saleh’s militia” and return to supporting “legitimacy.”

Yemen’s 123rd Brigade, based out of the eastern Al-Mahrah province, also announced its backing for Hadi and Operation Decisive Storm on Thursday, according to local media.

Asiri praised the Yemeni brigades that have renounced the coup and returned to supporting legitimacy, promising that the next few days will see even more Yemeni defectors returning to the fold.

Yemen talks to begin in Riyadh in coming weeks: Yemen FM

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin talks to reporters during a press conference at the Yemeni embassy in Saudi Arabia on March 30, 2015 in the Saudi capital Riyadh.  (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin talks to reporters during a press conference at the Yemeni embassy in Saudi Arabia on March 30, 2015 in the Saudi capital Riyadh. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemen’s legitimate government will seek to restart the political process and launch a long-awaited dialogue on the country’s future in Riyadh within the next few weeks, Yemen Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin said.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Yassin said that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored talks could take place in the coming weeks, despite the ongoing Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm targeting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“We are working to prepare for the launch of the political process within a legitimate framework, particularly as the only way out of the Yemeni crisis is through dialogue,” he said.

“Any other talks or dialogue being promoted by others are unrealistic and unacceptable,” he added, in an implicit reference to talks called for by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Riyadh conference, which would have originally seen Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi participate in talks with rival political factions to resolve the crisis in the country, has been in the works since before the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, although the Houthis had refused to attend.

Since then, the Houthis have expanded their control across other parts of Yemen, placing legitimate President Hadi under house arrest in Sana’a and forcing him to resign. Hadi was eventually able to escape the capital, setting up a rival government in the southern port city of Aden. He was forced to flee for a second time after Houthi troops advanced on the southern city. The embattled leader has established a government-in-exile in Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm being launched to back the legitimate political authority in Yemen, represented by Hadi and his government.

Given the current state of unrest and violence in the country, it is unlikely that the Houthis will agree to attend any peace talks in Riyadh.

“If the Houthis want to be part of the dialogue, they must put down their weapons, stop killing the Yemeni people and return to their areas as civilians,” the Yemeni foreign minister told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Houthis’ traditional stronghold is the Saada governorate, in the north of the country close to the Saudi border, although the group has spread out to take control of large parts of northern and central Yemen.

If the Houthis fail to meet these conditions, the coalition will carry out the “necessary measures” against them, Yassin warned.

“These conditions [disarming and acknowledging the legitimacy of President Hadi] are not just for the Houthis and the followers of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, but for all parties who think that violence or force of arms are acceptable means of dominating power,” Yassin said.

Houthis on back foot in Aden: Saudi Defense Ministry

Fighters loyal to Yemen's President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi stand by a tank they used in fighting against Houthi fighters in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on April 11, 2015. (Reuters/Stringer)
Fighters loyal to Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi stand by a tank they used in fighting against Houthi fighters in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on April 11, 2015. (Reuters/Stringer)

Riyadh and Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Saudi-led coalition targeting the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen has fulfilled most of its military objectives, with coalition airstrikes along with ground resistance by Yemeni volunteer groups succeeding in forcing out the Houthi militias from most parts of Aden, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry announced on Monday.

Briefing reporters at the Riyadh Airbase, Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said a combination of coalition airstrikes targeting Houthi supplies heading to Aden and planned ambushes by Yemeni tribal and volunteer forces on the movement’s militias in the southern port city had successfully forced many of them to retreat or surrender.

The coordination of airstrikes and assistance on the ground from the Yemeni tribes and volunteer groups loyal to the country’s internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, as well as the sea blockade implemented by coalition warships, has essentially sealed off the city, he said.

This has led to incoming military supplies to Houthi militias in Aden being blocked and has forced them out of their hideouts in the city, where they are then vulnerable to coalition airpower or to being apprehended by Hadi’s loyalists on the ground.

Local sources in Aden told Asharq Al-Awsat that 40 Houthi fighters had handed themselves over to Hadi loyalists on Sunday.

The sources also appeared to confirm Asiri’s comments on the Houthi retreat, saying this came after convoys carrying military supplies from the Taiz governorate, 111 miles (179 kilometers) northwest of Aden, were blocked from entering the city due to their route being targeted by coalition airstrikes.

Hadi loyalists have now begun to spread throughout Aden to fill the vacuum created by the fleeing Houthi militias and their allies in the military and security establishments who are loyal to Yemen’s ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The former leader has allied himself and his forces with the Houthi movement.

Houthi losses were not limited to Aden, according to sources in the central Ma’rib province, the country’s oil and gas hub.

“Clashes continued for the third day in a row [on Monday] in the Sarwah area, where forces loyal to the legitimate political power [represented by President Hadi] captured the local souk and council building, which the Houthis had previously taken over,” a local source from Ma’rib told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Reports from Sana’a, where the Houthis still hold sway, also suggest the Shi’ite movement has been kidnapping and imprisoning members of rival groups, especially those from the Sunni Islamist Al-Islah party.

Observers have told Asharq Al-Awsat this has come as a result of the Saudi-led airstrikes weakening the Houthi presence in Sana’a, with many members of the group’s militias being sent to other parts of the country. They say the Shi’ite group wishes to show it still maintains control in Sana’a despite its weakened presence in the capital.

The Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, have now entered their 18th day, and involve a number of the Kingdom’s Arab allies, including the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan.

Arafat Madabish contributed additional reporting from Sana’a.

Yemen: Coalition, volunteer forces block Houthi assault on Aden

Yemeni supporters of the southern separatist Al-Hirak movement stand on a tank in the city of Aden on April 6, 2015, after fierce clashes raged between Houthi rebels and loyalist fighters in southern Yemen, leaving nearly 100 dead in 24 hours. (AFP Photo/Saleh Al-Obeidi)
Yemeni supporters of the southern separatist Al-Hirak movement stand on a tank in the city of Aden on April 6, 2015, after fierce clashes raged between Houthi rebels and loyalist fighters in southern Yemen, leaving nearly 100 dead in 24 hours. (AFP Photo/Saleh Al-Obeidi)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi-led coalition forces targeting the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen, aided by volunteer forces allied to the country’s internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, have successfully forced the withdrawal of Houthi fighters from southern areas of the country.

In his daily briefing on the Saudi-led offensive, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said on Monday that Houthi militias and forces allied to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had attempted to take over the port of Aden in the country’s south but had been repelled by volunteer forces loyal to Hadi, who had made their way to the area from other parts of the country.

Reports in recent days have said the Houthi militias have moved to the center of Aden, with some suggesting the rebels have now taken over the southern port city, which forms the last remaining stronghold in the country for embattled President Hadi.

However, Asiri said the help offered by the coalition to Yemeni volunteer forces had helped prevent the Houthis from seizing the city.

“The Houthi rebels were in Aden before Operation Decisive Storm began . . . [but] the logistical support offered by coalition forces [to the volunteer forces] has made a huge difference on the ground and has helped force the [Houthi] rebels to the outskirts of Aden,” Asiri said.

He added that coordination between coalition forces—which in addition to the Kingdom’s include those of the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain—and Yemeni volunteer forces were continuing on the ground in order to counter the Houthi threat to Aden.

Houthi militias have been moving towards the city from the Shabwa, Al-Hudaydah and the Al-Dalea governorates northeast, northwest and north of Aden, respectively, Asiri said.

However, the spokesman remained bullish regarding coalition forces securing the city. In the last few days Asiri has revealed that Houthi gains in the area were down to coalition forces delaying their airstrikes over Aden in order to clear the area of civilians. Houthi militias were deliberately deploying their forces and storing military supplies in residential areas, he added.

On Monday Asiri said coalition airstrikes would soon be able to fully remove the Houthi threat to the city, as the rebels now had only two choices if they wished to make gains there: either to remain in the bunkers and bases which they have seized from the Yemeni military, or to come out into the city center once again.

In both cases—and now that the relevant civilian areas have been cleared—the Houthi militias will be completely exposed to airstrikes by the coalition, Asiri added.

Delivering aid

In recent days the International Committee of the Red Cross has requested a 24-hour ceasefire of all military operations conducted by the coalition in order to allow its relief workers to deliver aid to Yemenis most affected by the conflict.

Asiri revealed on Sunday that the coalition had agreed to allow Red Cross personnel to enter the country via a scheduled flight but that the international NGO had been unable to fly its personnel out of the country again.

During Monday’s press conference Asiri said the coalition had now begun procedures to evacuate 11 relief workers from the organization and that work was also ongoing to fly out the remaining workers out of the country into safety.

The coalition’s dedicated humanitarian and emergency committee was also working to deliver aid to Yemenis throughout the country, Asiri said, though he added that it was first necessary to take measures to ensure the aid would reach those most in need, and not the Houthi fighters.

Houthis setting up command centers in civilian areas: Saudi Defense Ministry

A technician prepares a Royal Saudi Air Force warplane before it takes part in Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, on April 5, 2015. (Saudi Press Agency)
A technician prepares a Royal Saudi Air Force warplane before it takes part in Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, on April 5, 2015. (Saudi Press Agency)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Militias belonging to the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement are deliberately setting up military command centers in civilian areas, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday.

Speaking to reporters at the Riyadh Airbase, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said these included residential areas as well as hotels throughout the country.

“Coalition forces are doing their utmost to take the appropriate measures regarding these command centers set up by the Houthi militias inside residential areas, and we have the necessary patience to deal with this situation. For this reason we are choosing not to be rash in taking any action that could come at a later time,” he said.

Asiri had said on Saturday that coalition airstrikes against Houthi targets in and around the southern port city of Aden had been delayed in order to evacuate civilians from target areas.

There have been reports of Houthi militias controlling Aden. However, Asiri said on Sunday that the situation in the city was “stable” and that coalition forces were still in control of all the country’s major ports, where they have implemented a sea blockade since last Monday.

The coalition is targeting the Houthi movement in the country, which in February launched a coup deposing Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Coalition forces were also working to support volunteer forces allied to Hadi, who are currently blocking the Houthi advance toward the city.

The Saudi-led offensive, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, had successfully blocked off Houthi military supplies that were being moved toward Aden, Asiri said.

“Our aircraft targeted Houthi convoys consisting of six [large] vehicles loaded with military equipment, ammunition, and heavy weapons, which were on their way to . . . Al-Hudaydah via Aden. This came about through two consecutive bombing campaigns.”

Asiri said Houthi militias were deliberately cutting off water and electricity supplies to Aden, exasperating the humanitarian situation in the city, and also deliberately targeting civilian areas.

“We had wished to make available suitable infrastructure to serve the Yemeni people, but this infrastructure has been replaced with ammunition storehouses and numerous rockets,” Asiri said, in reference to Houthi militias co-opting the city’s infrastructure to store weapons and targeting civilian areas.

Humanitarian relief efforts coordinated by Operation Decisive Storm’s dedicated humanitarian and emergency committee were continuing, he said. The committee, announced on Sunday, also coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross in order to help the organization reach affected areas in Yemen.

The Red Cross had earlier requested a 24-hour ceasefire to allow its relief workers to safely enter the country.

Asiri revealed that coalition forces had agreed to allow planes carrying workers and supplies from the relief agency to enter the country on Sunday, but that the Red Cross had been unable to make the trip at the agreed-upon time.

“We informed the Red Cross that the time for the flight was 9 pm [local time on Sunday] . . . but the organization failed to make it on time for the flight and informed us they wished to take a different plane, because the carrier that was supposed to transfer them to Yemen did not wish to make the trip into the country,” he said.

“They [the Red Cross] have now asked for the trip to be rescheduled to a different, [as-yet] unspecified time.”

Coalition partners form committee to evacuate civilians in Yemen

Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri gives a press conference at the Riyadh Airbase, Saudi Arabia, on March 4, 2015. (Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri gives a press conference at the Riyadh Airbase, Saudi Arabia, on March 4, 2015. (Saudi Press Agency)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Forces taking part in the Saudi-led coalition targeting the Houthis in Yemen have formed a humanitarian and emergency committee to help evacuate civilians located in conflict zones around the country, the Saudi Defense Ministry announced on Saturday.

Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri told reporters in Riyadh that the committee had already coordinated the evacuation of foreigners in Yemen from five countries: Russia, India, Algeria, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Flights organized to evacuate other foreigners in Yemen were also scheduled for Sunday, and included those from China, Djibouti, Egypt and Pakistan. Other countries who have requested their citizens to be evacuated included Britain, Germany, Canada, Jordan and Iraq, he said, adding that the committee was awaiting flights from those countries to arrive in order to begin the evacuation process in full.

All these efforts were coordinated with the countries in question as well as coalition countries, and aircraft from members of Operation Decisive Storm, such as Jordan and Egypt, had helped evacuate Russian civilians from the country on Wednesday, Asiri revealed.

He added that the Saudi Defense Ministry, which is coordinating the activities of the committee, is also helping organize procedures to ease and speed up the work of trusted and internationally recognized humanitarian agencies, in order to allow them to reach those most affected by the conflict.

Asiri reiterated that coalition forces were doing all they can to evacuate civilians, as this is a natural course of action during times of war when civilians are located in or around military targets.

Any delay in evacuating civilians from the country was due to the Houthi movement, he said, who currently control the capital Sana’a and other parts of the country, including most of its airports.

Asiri said the Saudi Defense Ministry had been in touch with the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver on Sunday humanitarian aid to civilians in conflict zones in the country.

“The [International Committee of the] Red Cross informed us today [Saturday] that they would be [sending provisions to civilians]. The raison d’être of this entire coalition is to serve and save the Yemeni people,” Asiri said.

Humanitarian efforts were therefore an intrinsic part of the operation, Asiri said.

The Red Cross has asked for a 24-hour ceasefire in order to help the organization reach those most affected by the conflict. Asiri hinted such a ceasefire could be possible in future.

“If the political leadership [of the coalition] finds there is a need for such a ceasefire of airstrikes, then a decision will be made in this regard. We are currently fulfilling our objectives on the ground, and our main objective is the welfare of the Yemeni people, the safety and security of the region, and those of Saudi Arabia and the other countries bordering Yemen,” Asiri said.

“This does not mean, however, that we will not also be carrying out humanitarian missions,” he added.

Asiri also spoke of the military progress of Operation Decisive Storm, which began on March 25 targeting the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen, which has launched a coup in the country.

In addition to Sana’a, militias belonging to the Houthis have entered the southern port city of Aden, where internationally recognized Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi had been based since the coup and his escape from a Houthi-imposed house arrest in Sana’a in February. He has now traveled to Saudi Arabia.

Coalition airstrikes on Houthi targets in and around the city scheduled for Friday had been delayed, Asiri revealed, in order to allow time to evacuate civilians from the area.

Former Yemen president Saleh has fled the country: foreign minister

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin talks to reporters during a press conference at the Yemeni embassy in Saudi Arabia on March 30, 2015 in the Saudi capital Riyadh.  (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin talks to reporters during a press conference at the Yemeni embassy in Saudi Arabia on March 30, 2015 in the Saudi capital Riyadh. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemen’s legitimate President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his Gulf backers have received information that ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied to the Houthi uprising, has fled the war-torn country.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Yemen Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin said: “We have received information from the ground that Saleh has fled via a Russian plane.”

“The Russian plane had earlier arrived in Sana’a from Cairo airport to evacuate diplomats and obtained permission from coalition warplanes to enter Yemeni airspace,” he added.

Yassin affirmed that the Russian plane departed the Yemeni capital more than 12 hours after landing, hinting that the delay was to allow Yemen’s former president to board.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is backing Yemen’s rebel Houthi group, which has taken over large swathes of Yemeni territory. Joint Houthi-Saleh forces remain in control of the capital Sana’a and parts of central and northern Yemen.

Pro-Hadi forces were able to push back rebel fighters in the southern port city of Aden after receiving an arms drop on Friday from the Saudi-led coalition that is targeting the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh.

Yassin called on a number of Yemeni political figures and ex-officials, presumed allies of Saleh, to back Yemen’s legitimate President Hadi.

“These figures are close to Ali Abdullah Saleh, and we hope that they stand with the Yemeni people, but we do not know the extent of their ties to Saleh. We, in the legitimate government of Yemen, are extending our hands to them in the hope that they come back to their senses,” Yassin told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He added: “They must publicly announce their abandonment of Saleh, and if they do not do this within the next few days, then they will regret it.”

The figures include Yemen’s former telecommunications minister Ahmed Bin Daghar, former foreign minister Dr. Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, parliamentary speaker Yahya Al-Raiee and Ma’rib governor Arif Al-Zuka.

The balance of power on the ground has swung in favor of pro-Hadi forces following the launch of major air offensive Operation Decisive Storm by a coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia on March 26.

Yassin praised the arms drop and military intervention, but stopped short of calling for boots on the ground.

“The legitimate government of Yemen is today optimistic regarding the fighting around Aden, particularly after the pro-Hadi Popular Committees received military support and have been able to resist the Houthi advance there. The people of Aden have carried out a major effort in heroically stopping the rebel advance and we are in control of most territory there,” Yassin said.

“At the present time, we are not calling for a ground advance inside Yemen, but rather assistance for the Popular Committees in terms of arms, to allow them to defeat the rebellion against legitimate President Hadi.

“The Houthis are not capable of defeating Yemen’s tribes; they are running out of arms, while Saleh has begun to betray them. Therefore, what we need is arms to repel Houthi aggression,” he added.

Saudi-led coalition targets Houthi stronghold in Yemen

Members of the Saudi border guard pose for pictures in the Ashiq island, in the southern Jizan province near the border with Yemen, on April 1, 2015. (AFP Photo/STR)
Members of the Saudi border guard pose for pictures in the Ashiq island, in the southern Jizan province near the border with Yemen, on April 1, 2015. (AFP Photo/STR)

Riyadh, Al-Hudaydah and Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have targeted the stronghold of the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen, the Saudi Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.

Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said coalition warplanes had intensified strikes against the Houthis in the northern Saada province, the movement’s traditional stronghold.

Meanwhile, sources in Yemen said the Saudi-led offensive, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, had hit the Maran area in Saada, where Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi currently resides, with reports suggesting he had fled to a cave hideout in the region’s mountainous areas.

On Monday reports said coalition forces had hit the Al-Mazraq refugee camp outside Sana’a, killing at least 40 civilians.

But Asiri said on Monday that coalition warplanes had come under anti-aircraft missile attacks from the area and were thereby forced to respond. He added that Houthi militias have been deploying their forces in a number of civilian areas.

Coalition forces were doing their utmost to accurately specify targets and ensure they are free from civilians, he said.

Early on Wednesday, an explosion at a dairy factory in the Western Al-Hudaydah province also killed 25 workers, according to health officials.

A faction from Yemen’s army allied to the Houthis said on Wednesday the explosion was caused by coalition airstrikes.

However, local sources from Al-Hudaydah told Asharq Al-Awsat the explosion occurred after a rocket was launched at the factory from a nearby army base controlled by military forces loyal to the Houthis.

The dairy factory is owned by the Thabet Brothers Group, one of Yemen’s biggest business conglomerates, whose owners are reportedly against the Houthi coup.

“It was armed Houthis who attacked the dairy factory,” one eyewitness told Asharq Al-Awsat. “The reason for this is that the Thabet Brothers Group refused a request from the Houthis to aid them financially and for the movement to use their factories to store weapons and supplies.”

Other sources said the Houthis had targeted the factory in order stir up international condemnation of the Saudi-led airstrikes.

Meanwhile, in the southern port city of Aden, local volunteer forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, blocked the Houthi advance towards the city, Maj. Gen. Asiri said on Wednesday.

Other reports on Thursday suggested the Houthis had entered the center of the city.

Sources told Reuters “unidentified foreign troops” had landed in Aden’s port via a single vessel.

There has been no confirmation as yet from the Saudi Defense Ministry on whether the troops belong to coalition forces, but this seems extremely likely as coalition warships implemented a sea blockade of all Yemen’s ports on Monday.

According the Saudi Press Agency, the country’s Interior Ministry on Thursday said a Saudi border guard was killed and 10 others when their observation post came under attack from a mountainous area in Yemen.

Wael Hazam and Arafat Madabish contributed additional reporting from Al-Hudaydah and Sana’a.