NEW: Yemen's foreign minister said he expects Saudi-led ground troops in Yemen within days
Yemen's President rallies support on Saturday in Egypt
Arab League blessing of military action may set the stage for a ground invasion
In just a few weeks’ time, good relations with neighbors have become a matter of survival for Yemen President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
On Saturday, he rallied regional allies in Egypt, while they bombarded his enemies in his country.
After Houthi rebels occupied the capital Sanaa weeks ago, Hadi’s government fled. When the President called for military intervention to beat back their attempt to overthrow him, adjacent countries answered this week with a grand airstrike operation.
In the darkness of early Saturday, their jets increased the hail of ordnance on Sanaa, as Saudi-led operation Determination Storm went into its fourth day. Hadi was in Sharm el-Sheikh to meet with the region’s leaders at the Arab League summit.
Yemen has been plunged into chaos since the Houthi rebels – Shiite Muslims who have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country – began seizing control of the capital and other areas of the country in recent weeks.
The rebellion upset other Sunni majority nations, prompting the airstrikes this week from Saudi Arabia and at least seven other countries that aim to help restore Hadi’s government.
The unrest also led to the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from Yemen this month, seriously undermining counterterrorism efforts in a country that has been a stronghold for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Continuous strikes in capital
Friday night, the Saudi-led airstrikes on Sanaa were continuous.
Jets bombarded Hadi’s weapons caches and other military assets, Houthi and Yemeni government officials said. And Saudi Arabia claimed major successes.
The Royal Saudi Air Force crushed all major air defense weapons of the Houthis and their allies, a Saudi adviser said Saturday. They wiped out main military infrastructure around Sanaa and destroyed most of the main roadways connecting the capital with major cities Taiz and Aden.
The RSAF laid waste to all major air fields, the Saudi adviser said, and many Houthi and allied fighters fell to the bombs.
Yemen Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen told CNN on Saturday that he believes Saudi Arabia-led coalition troops will be in Yemen within days. The Houthi rebels’ capture of Sanaa and other areas of the country in recent weeks has forced the legitimate Yemeni government to ask for Saudi intervention, Yaseen said.
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh still holds influence over large parts of the Yemeni army, which also made the Saudi-led intervention necessary, according to Yaseen.
Just days before the Saudi-led intervention, Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, traveled to Riyadh to broker a deal with Saudi officials, Yaseen said. The deal he presented included turning his factions against Houthi rebels, but the Saudis refused, according to Yaseen.
A senior diplomat in Yemen said rumors of a ground invasion are circulating.
“The bottom line is – I do not see any political or military forces on the ground in the country now that could confront the dominant force – the Houthis,” the diplomat said.
Saudi naval special forces invaded to rescue 68 diplomats out of Aden and take them to Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom has attempted to remove a U.N. delegation from the country, the Saudi adviser said.
The diplomat said a majority of U.N. staff left the country on three planes Saturday. Leaders of key humanitarian agencies stayed behind to assess needs and coordinate a response.
In the area of the southern port city of Aden, opposing Yemeni military forces – those allied with the Houthis, and those supporting Hadi – have fought for more than a week. Loyalists to Hadi gained control of the airport on Saturday, the diplomat said.
Mayhem was reported in Aden.
“We are hearing reports of summary executions, looting” in Aden, the diplomat said.
Talk of boots
Saudi Arabia has locked the Houthis down with a blockade, effectively cutting off their supply lines, and its air force controls Yemeni airspace. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both spoken about the possibility of putting boots on the ground.
The Arab League is expected to give its official blessing to Determination Storm on Saturday, which could clear the way for a ground invasion, CNN’s Becky Anderson reported.
The Saudi adviser said to expect a major announcement from Saudi Arabia at the summit.
But there may also be pushback from a few member nations, such as Shiite majority Iraq or possibly Algeria.
Though the Saudi kingdom has taken the lead with some 100 warplanes, the coalition partners include the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt.
Together they comprise about a third of the Arab League’s membership. They are majority Sunni Muslim nations, and the Houthi rebels are Shiite Muslims allied with Iran.
Having Yemen become an Iranian satellite country on its border would be perceived as a major threat by neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees the Houthis as proxies of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival on the Persian Gulf.
Iran has sharply denounced the armed intervention.
At Saturday’s Arab League summit in Egypt, Hadi denounced the Houthis as Iran’s “puppet.”
“I say to the puppet of Iran, and those who are with him, you destroyed Yemen with your immature politics, and creating internal and regional crisis,” Hadi said. “You are wrong to think that you can build the homeland with shouting and speeches.
“You violated the sovereignty (of Yemen), and you bear the responsibility for what happen and what is going to happen.”
The United States has approved of the airstrikes and is supporting them logistically, and aiding coalition forces in locating targets, but it is not participating in active battle.
A small contingency of U.S. forces had been stationed in Yemen to help in the fight against AQAP, but left this month after Houthi rebels advanced from Sanaa to Aden.
For years, Yemen had allowed U.S. drones and special operations forces to stalk AQAP in the country. Now, that arrangement is in tatters.
Houthis moved into Sanaa in September, sparking battles that killed a few hundred people before a ceasefire was called. In January, they surrounded the presidential palace and Hadi resigned and was put under house arrest.
Hadi escaped in February, fleeing to Aden and declaring that he remained the country’s leader. The Houthis took control of military forces stationed near Sanaa, including the air force. After fighting moved toward Aden, Hadi left the country this week.
HRW: Civilians killed
Dozens of people have died in the strikes, and on Saturday, Human Rights Watch said many of the victims were civilians, perhaps as many as 34.
“Reports of air strikes and anti-aircraft weapons in heavily populated areas raise serious concerns that not enough is being done to ensure their safety,” HRW regional spokesman Joe Stork said.
A Saudi Arabia defense official blamed civilian deaths on the Houthis, saying they were using them as human shields. Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the kingdom’s military was using precision weapons to avoid collateral damage, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.
Media outlets have come under fire as well. An hour after President Hadi ordered the closure of all Houthi-controlled media – including Yemen TV and Saba TV – Houthis raided two TV channels and the prominent Al Masdar newspaper.
Al Jazeera’s office in Sanaa was also targeted, the Qatar-based network said, with Houthis looting security cameras and damaging equipment.
Journalist Hakim Almasmari reported from Yemen; CNN’s Nic Robertson reported from France, and Ben Brumfield wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN’s Jason Hanna, Becky Anderson and Nick Paton Walsh contributed to this report.