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May 11, 2015 12:33 PM

Moroccan warplane apparently downed before Yemen cease-fire

The Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen (AP) Shiite rebels in Yemen claimed Monday to have shot down a Moroccan F-16 fighter jet taking part in a Saudi-led coalition targeting them and their allies, just a day before a five-day humanitarian cease-fire was set to begin and as coalition airstrikes intensified in the capital, Sanaa.

Morocco's military, however, would only say that the jet had gone missing early Sunday evening, but a Moroccan online news site with close ties to the kingdom's royal palace and security and intelligence services said the downed aircraft was one of two that flew out of a base in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday on a reconnaissance mission over the Yemeni side of the border with Saudi Arabia.

The French-language site, Le360, said rebel anti-aircraft batteries stationed atop mountains standing 1,800 meters high opened fire on the two aircraft as they flew overhead at low altitude.

"The Moroccan fighter jets maneuvered, gained altitude, attempted to escape the danger, but it was too late. One of the craft was hit and went into a spin," said Le360.

The purported downing of the jet fighter came as a Saudi-owned news channel, al-Hadath, aired live footage of tanks and armored personnel carriers loaded onto giant trucks, saying they were part of a "strike force" deploying to the kingdom's border with Yemen. There have been no signs to suggest that a ground offensive was imminent, although the coalition has not ruled one out.

Yemeni security officials, meanwhile, said Sanaa came under heavy air bombardment on Monday afternoon, with the primary target being weapons and ammunition depots on Noqom mountain on the city's northeastern outskirts. The bombing unleashed a series of explosions, with shells flying out and hitting residential areas and starting fires. There was no immediate word on civilian casualties.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Monday's explosions were the strongest in the capital since the air campaign began, causing some homes to collapse and shattering windows in many parts of the city.

Photos purporting to show the wreckage of the Moroccan aircraft on social media networks depicted armed tribesmen and children posing next to wreckage that bore the North African kingdom's national colors of red and green. A corpse also was visible.

A video clip also posted on social media purported to show a reporter from the rebels' mouthpiece television station al-Maseera visiting the site of the crash in the northern Saada province and tribesmen posing with parts of the plane's fuselage or triumphantly raising fists into the air. "This plane was downed by God," shouted one tribesman.

It was al-Maseera that first claimed the downing of the aircraft in Saada, birthplace and stronghold of the movement of the rebels known as Houthis. Saada also borders Saudi Arabia.

The rebels and their allies in Yemen's splintered armed forces routinely fire anti-aircraft rounds at warplanes launching strikes in the country since the Saudi-led campaign began March 26.

Morroco's state news agency MAP, citing a military statement, said the pilot of a second jet said he didn't see the pilot of the missing fighter eject. The military said it had launched an investigation into the incident, without elaborating on a cause for the crash.

Morocco has six F-16 jets stationed in the United Arab Emirates taking part in the Saudi-led coalition, which includes a group of other Sunni Arab countries. The West says regional Shiite power Iran backs the Houthis militarily, something both the Islamic Republic and the rebels deny.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported on Monday that a cargo ship carrying 2,500 tons of food, medicine, tents and blankets departed Monday afternoon from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, heading for the Yemeni port of Hodeida. The report said the ship was also carrying several journalists, rescue workers, physicians and "anti-war activists."

If confirmed, the Moroccan F-16 would be the second jet fighter to go down in the conflict. During the early days of the air campaign, a fighter jet crashed in the Arabian Sea off Yemen's southern coast, but the pilot and co-pilot were picked up by a nearby navy vessel. Technical problems were said to have caused that crash.

The raging conflict in Yemen has killed over 1,400 people many of them civilians since March 19, according to the United Nations. The cease-fire, scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. (2000 GMT, 4 p.m. EDT) Tuesday, would help ease the suffering of civilians in the Arab world's poorest country, who have endured shortages of power, water, food and medicine as a result of a Saudi-led naval, air and land blockade.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch said the blockade is keeping out fuel needed for the survival of the Yemeni population, contending that it was a violation of the "laws of war."

Yemen, it said, urgently needs of fuel to power generators for hospitals overwhelmed with wounded and to pump drinking water. The coalition, it added, must urgently "implement measures for the rapid processing of oil tankers to allow the safe, secure, and speedy distribution of fuel supplies to the civilian population."

All sides in the conflict have warned they will resume hostilities if the cease-fire is violated.

Yemen was expected to be discussed at a Camp David summit later this week between the United States and leaders of six Gulf, U.S.-allied Arab nations, but the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have said they would not attend.

Meanwhile, the extremist Islamic State group's branch in Yemen has released a video purportedly showing the killing of at least 11 Yemeni army soldiers, who it called "apostates," in the southern province of Shabwa. While it could not be independently verified by The Associated Press, the video corresponded to others released by the extremists and supporters of the group shared it online.

Yemen is home to what the U.S. considers to be the world's most active and dangerous al-Qaida affiliate, but a branch of the Islamic State group has recently surfaced in the country, taking responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings in Sanaa earlier this year that killed at least 137 people.

The emergence of an Islamic State branch in Yemen adds yet another layer to the chaos gripping the country and threatens to give an even deeper sectarian slant to the conflict there. Zaydis, followers of a Shiite doctrine that is exists almost exclusively in Yemen, account for just under a third of Yemen's estimated 25 million, mostly Sunni people. The Houthis are Zaydis.

And in Malaysia, the army issued a statement Monday saying it wasn't sending ground troops to support the Saudi-led coalition. On Sunday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported that a contingent of Malaysian troops arrived at Saudi air bases, without elaborating.

In its statement, the Malaysian military said it based two C-130 transport planes in the kingdom only to "facilitate the safe and smooth evacuation of the remaining Malaysian citizens in Yemen."


Schemm, the AP's chief correspondent for North Africa, reported from Istanbul, Turkey. Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.


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