Saudi air strikes on Shia rebels in Yemen have triggered a furious reaction from regional rival Iran, with top officials warning that military action could spill into other countries.
Saudi Arabia said that a coalition consisting of 10 countries, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), had begun air strikes at 2am local time on Thursday, targeting Houthi positions in the capital, Sanaa.
According to Al Jazeera sources, the strikes carried out by 100 jets from Saudi and its coalition, have destroyed Iranian-made missile launchers in the capital Sanaa. The operation has been dubbed, “Decisive Storm.”
The Houthi-run health ministry in Sanaa said that at least 18 civilians were killed and 24 others were wounded in the Saudi-led attacks on the capital.
The bombing of the Houthis, who are said to be backed by Iran – a charge Tehran denies – came after several weeks of warnings that Yemen was descending into civil war.
Saudi Arabia said it had launched the bombing raids to reinstate what it called the legitimate government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has been holed up in the main southern city of Aden since fleeing rebel-controlled Sanaa.
The Houthis and their allies within the armed forces had been closing in on Hadi’s last bastion, Aden.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the air strikes would lead only to greater loss of life.
“Military action from outside of Yemen against its territorial integrity and its people will have no other result than more bloodshed and more deaths,” he told the Iranian-owned Al-Alam television channel.
He also called for an “urgent dialogue” among the Yemeni factions “without external interference”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Sanaa, Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti called the military action a declaration of war on Yemen, adding that reports alleging a Houthi leader, Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, had been injured were false.
Meanwhile, thousands of pro-Houthi protesters gathered in Sanaa on Thursday to condemn the Saudi-led air strikes. In the city of Taiz, supporters of President Hadi organised a rival protest.
Saudi-led coalition troops have bombed Houthi targets in Yemen for a third consecutive night, and claim to be in complete control of Yemen’s airspace.
The air strikes early on Saturday hit targets in the city of Hudaydah on the Red Sea Coast, the Houthi stronghold of Saada in the north, and military installations in and around the capital Sanaa.
The air strikes also struck the base of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for more than 30 years. Saleh is believed to have fled to Sanhan, near the capital.
The air strikes come amid reports of ground fighting between forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebels in the southern port of Aden.
The spokesman for the Arab coalition bombing Houthi targets in Yemen, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, said that Saudi Arabia and its allies will do whatever it takes to stop Yemen’s second largest city from falling to the Shia rebels.
Asiri said in Riyadh on Friday that the coalition’s “main objective [is] to protect the government in Aden”.
Asiri’s comments came as a US defence official told Al Jazeera that US forces had rescued two Saudi airmen on Thursday who had ejected from their F-15 fighter jets over the Gulf of Aden. The official said a HH-60 helicopter from Djibouti recovered the Saudi airmen in international waters.
The defence official said the rescue took place at Saudi Arabia’s request and a statement issued by the White House said that Saudi’s King Salman had thanked US President Barack Obama in a phone call.
Saudi Arabia’s state news agency reported that the fighter plane had been “stricken by a technical fault”.
A senior Palestinian Authority official has called on Arab states to “strike” Gaza, following the example of the Saudi-led bombing raids on Yemen.
Arab states have a duty to “strike those who have violated legitimacy with an iron fist, regardless of the place, time or circumstances, beginning with Palestine,” said Mahmoud al-Habbash, religious affairs advisor to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas.
“What happened in Gaza was a coup, not a division, and it must be addressed with firmness,” added Al-Habbash, who is also the PA’s chief Islamic justice. “There can be no dialogue with coup-makers; they must be hit with an iron fist.”
Al-Habbash made his comments, which were reported by the official Palestinian news agency, in a Friday sermon at the mosque in the PA’s Ramallah headquarters.
Officials of Abbas’ Ramallah-based, Western-supported PA regularly accuse Hamas of carrying out a “coup” when it took over the interior of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
This is a reversal of the well-documented reality that Hamas was acting against a coup attempt by forces loyal to Abbas, after Hamas won legislative elections the previous year.
The coup, which was supported at the highest levels of the US government, succeeded in the West Bank, where Abbas consolidated his Israeli-backed control.
Meanwhile, the democratically elected Hamas-led government was isolated and besieged in Gaza.