A Houthi stronghold near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia has been declared a “military target” by the Saudi-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against the Houthi rebels who are allied with forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Its residents were advised to leave the region by 7 p.m. local time on Friday, according to the Saudi military spokesman.
The northern Yemeni province of Saada has seen recent cross-border attacks by the Houthis on Saudi cities close to the frontier, prompting the coalition to promise a “harsh response” to the Houthi attacks. Coalition planes dropped leaflets to Saada’s residents, asking them to leave and saying all roads would remain open until the ultimatum expires.
More than 100 airstrikes hit Saada overnight and on Friday morning. Hamed al-Bokheiti, a spokesman for the Houthi movement in Sanaa, described the Saudi declaration as a “war crime.” He said one of Friday’s airstrikes hit a telecommunications center in the city of Saada, leaving it isolated from the world, and also destroyed the tomb of the Houthi movement founder Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi in the city of Marran. The Saudi Press Agency reported that warplanes also destroyed a land-mine factory and command centres in the province.
The Saudi airstrikes have been targeting Saada for more than forty days since the start of a campaign against the rebels. In addition to the bombs, helicopters dropped leaflets calling on residents to stay away from rebel positions and houses. The imminent escalation in the airstrikes raises questions concerning the five-day conditional ceasefire announced on Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir. The beleaguered country is in need of humanitarian aid for millions of civilians trapped in the violent conflict. Since the Saudi-led campaign started on March 26, more than 1,400 people have been killed in Yemen.
As the airstrikes destroy large stockpiles of Houthi weaponry, the rebels have responded by carrying out cross-border attacks targeting Saudi cities near the Yemeni frontier. On Tuesday the rebels fired rockets and mortars into the kingdom, killing at least three people.
“Houthis will pay dearly for what they have done,” said coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri in a statement on Saudi state TV. “In the past, operations were only meant to protect legitimacy in Yemen. Now we are taking the lead.”
He said the Houthis “made a mistake by targeting Saudi cities.”
Among the declared goals of the Saudi-led campaign is to restore Hadi and his government in the southern city of Aden, which was declared a temporarily capital before Hadi’s escape to Riyadh.
The conflict in Yemen has been characterized as an extension of the widely-reported proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Middle East and Muslim world. The U.S. supports the Saudis and a coalition of other Sunni Arab countries in the air campaign against the rebels, while Iran has backed the Shi’ite rebels and, according to Saudi Arabia and the U.S., also provides them with weapons. Both the Houthis and Tehran deny that any material assistance has come from the Islamic Republic.