RIYADH/Aden – Saudi Arabia dismissed Iranian calls to end airstrikes on neighbouring Yemen on Sunday as Saudi-led attacks hit a military camp in the Yemeni city of Taiz, killing eight civilians according to a medical source as reported by agencies.
Riyadh said Tehran should not interfere in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies began airstrikes against Iranian-allied Houthi militia fighters over two weeks ago to try and prevent them making further advances.
The air raids on the central Yemeni city targeted a site held by soldiers loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who have joined up with Houthi fighters against local militias in the south, the source said.
“How can Iran call for us to stop the fighting in Yemen?” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in the Saudi capital Riyadh at a news conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.
“We came to Yemen to help the legitimate authority, and Iran is not in charge of Yemen.
He also called on Iran to stop supporting Shiite rebels.
“Unless Iran thinks it is suddenly become part of Yemen, we are not at war with Iran,” he said.
But he also called on Tehran not to “assist the criminal activities” of the Houthi rebels “against the legitimate order of Yemen and (to) stop the delivery of weapons and aid” to the militiamen.
Fabius, who met with King Salman and other top Saudi officials during a visit to Riyadh, said France was ready to work on resolving the crisis in Yemen.
“France has expressed its readiness to find a solution” for Yemen, he said.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday that the airstrikes were a “crime and genocide” and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called for a ceasefire and dialogue among Yemen’s factions.
Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies bombing Yemen fear that Shi’ite Iran seeks hegemony by backing armed Shi’ite groups in the region, a charge the Islamic Republic denies.
Former president Saleh was forced to give up power in 2012 after mass protests against his rule, but his loyalists in the military remained in place and now fight alongside the Houthis.
The campaign has raised fears that a sectarian proxy war between rivals Riyadh and Tehran will further destabilise the Middle East and potentially destroy the Yemeni state.
In a sign of the military’s weakening control, suspected Al-Qaeda militants killed an army colonel in the central Shabwa province on Sunday, a local official said.
Separately, an Al-Qaeda leader was killed in an apparent US drone strike on a group of militants west of the port city of Mukalla on the Arabian Sea, residents told Reuters.
It was the first reported drone strike against the powerful Yemeni branch of the global militant group since the US evacuated about 100 special forces troops advising Yemeni forces last month.
While the United States and its Sunni Gulf allies are worried about the threat from Sunni radicals such as Al-Qaeda, they also fear the war will increase Iran’s influence.
Saudi Arabia is concerned its war on the Houthis could spill over the border, but Iran has denied Saudi allegations that it has provided military support to the group.
The Houthis also deny getting help from Iran and say their armed campaign is designed to stamp out corruption and Sunni Al-Qaeda militants.
According to the United Nations, the conflict, in which the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa in the north in September, has killed 600 people, wounded 2,200 and displaced 100,000 others.
Saudi Arabia’s Defence Ministry said on Sunday that the coalition has flown more than 1,200 air sorties over Yemen since the operation began.
It added that more than 500 Houthis have also been killed in fighting on Yemen’s border, but it was not clear how it arrived at that figure.
In fresh fighting, a Saudi-led airstrike hit a base in central Yemen killing 15 rebels on Sunday as 12 people died in overnight fighting in main southern city Aden, medical and security sources said.
The pre-dawn strike hit Camp 22 in Al-Dhahra in the south of Taez province and also wounded eight Huthi Shiite rebels or allied troops, a medic at Al-Thawra hospital said.
The base belongs to the elite Republican Guard which remained loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh after he was forced from power in 2012 following a year of nationwide protests against his three-decade rule.
Saleh has allied his followers with the Huthi rebels, who overran the capital Sanaa in September, in their battle against forces loyal to fugitive President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led coalition said on Saturday that it had conducted 1,200 air strikes since March 26 and neutralised the air and missile capabilities of the rebels and their allies.
The air campaign, which has been accompanied by a naval blockade, was launched as the rebels closed in on Hadi’s refuge in Aden.
The president escaped to neighbouring Saudi Arabia as the rebels and their allies entered the port city sparking fierce fighting with his loyalists.
Four civilians were shot dead in the city’s Mualla and Dar Saad districts on Saturday, a medic at the Ba-Suhaib military hospital said.
A Hadi loyalist blamed rebel snipers for the deaths.
In the west of Aden, five rebels and three loyalist militiamen were killed in clashes that flared as the rebels tried to advance towards the city’s oil refinery, sources on both sides said.
Since the air campaign began, fighting has flared in 15 of Yemen’s 22 provinces.
These include Aden, Daleh, Lahj, Abyan and Shabwa in the formerly independent south, where locally recruited militia have remained loyal to Hadi.
Taez, Ibb, Baida, Hudeida, Raymah, Amran, Hajja, Saada, Jawf and Marib have seen clashes between the rebels and tribes loyal to Hadi, or with Saudi troops across the border.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda militants have taken advantage of the security vacuum to seize control of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province in the southeast.