May 13, 2015 10:44 AM

Saudi airstrike hits Yemen rebel convoy, strains cease-fire

The Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen (AP) A jet-fighter from a Saudi-led coalition struck a military convoy belonging to Shiite rebels and their allies in southern Yemen on Wednesday, straining a humanitarian, five-day cease-fire that took hold the previous day.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian military official warned the U.S.-backed coalition against blocking a Yemen-bound Iranian aid ship, saying that such a move would "spark a fire" in the region.

Wednesday's airstrike in Yemen's Abyan province was in response to an attempt by the rebels known as Houthis to reinforce their forces in the nearby city of Aden, a port city on the Arabian Sea, said Yemeni security officials. The Houthis acknowledged the airstrike, but said nothing about the convoy. There were no immediate reports on casualties or damage resulting from the airstrike.

However, continued ground fighting was reported in some areas shortly after the cease-fire came into force on Tuesday night, with security officials and witnesses saying fierce combat broke out when the rebels sought to storm the southern city of Dhale, firing tank shells, rockets and mortars. The officials and witnesses all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

A Saudi Defense Ministry statement accused the Houthis of violating the ceasefire Wednesday morning by firing toward the Saudi border areas of Jizan and Najran. The statement quoted an unnamed official, as it regularly does, as saying the kingdom's armed forces were exercising restraint in line with a commitment to the ceasefire.

Saudi Arabia and its coalition of Sunni Arab countries began the airstrikes to break the advance of the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen late last year and have been on the offensive in the south.

The Saudis and their allies are seeking the restoration of the Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March in the face of the Houthis' advance

In Tehran, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri warned that actions against the Iranian aid ship would not be tolerated.

"I bluntly declare that the self-restraint of Islamic Republic of Iran is not limitless," Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff, told Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam state TV late Tuesday. "Both Saudi Arabia and its novice rulers, as well as the Americans and others, should be mindful that if they cause trouble for the Islamic Republic with regard to sending humanitarian aid to regional countries, it will spark a fire, the putting out of which would definitely be out of their hands."

Iran says the ship, which departed on Monday, is carrying food, medicine, tents and blankets, as well as reporters, rescue workers and peace activists. Tehran says it's expected to arrive in Yemen's port city of Hodeida next week likely after the five-day cease-fire expires.

Iran's navy said Tuesday it will protect the ship, and on Wednesday Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran would not permit any country involved in the Yemen war to inspect its cargo.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a military spokesman, said Tuesday that no ship would be permitted to reach Yemen unless there was prior coordination with the coalition leading the air campaign and that if Iran wants to deliver humanitarian aid, it should do so through the United Nations.

In Washington, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said the American military is monitoring the cargo ship and warned Iran against "planning some sort of stunt." He said the Iranian naval escort is unnecessary and that Iran should send the ship to Djibouti, where humanitarian efforts for Yemen are being coordinated.

The United States, which supports the coalition, and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of arming the Houthis. Iran supports the rebels, but both Tehran and the Houthis deny it has provided weapons to them.

The conflict has killed more than 1,400 people many of them civilians since March 19, according to the U.N. The country of some 25 million people has endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of a Saudi-led naval, air and land blockade.

The cease-fire is meant to help ease the suffering of civilians in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country.

A U.N. Security Council statement Tuesday night called on the secretary-general to convene U.N.-led talks on Yemen that would include all the parties, and it urged all stakeholders to take part. Officials have said the U.N. has not yet set a time and date for such talks.

The council statement also welcomed the five-day pause in fighting but warned that "for the humanitarian pause to be successful; all parties will need to transparently and reliably suspend military operations."

Also Wednesday, new U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met with leaders of Saleh's one-time ruling party, but there was no word on the substance of the talks. Ahmed has said he intended to meet separately with Yemen's political leaders before a decision is made on the venue and time of talks that bring them together to chart a political blueprint for Yemen.

And in the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition, a senior official said the airstrikes campaign has sought to prevent the Houthis from becoming a group in the Arabian Peninsula with the influence and power of the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"Our goals are clear. The first goal is to prevent ... the growth of a power like Hezbollah," Minister of State for Foreign and Federal National Council Affairs Anwar Gargash told the Arab Media Forum in Dubai.

He also emphasized the need to rebuild and develop deeply impoverished country once the conflict is over.


Dareini reported from Tehran, Iran. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.


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