Arab leaders meet in Egypt amid 'unprecedented' threats
Yemen's president on Saturday called rebels who forced him to flee the country "stooges of Iran," directly blaming the Islamic Republic for the chaos there and demanding airstrikes against rebel positions continue until they surrender.
Other leaders, including the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, obliquely referenced Iran earlier at the opening session of an Arab summit held in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
They blamed Iran for meddling in the affairs of Arab nations, with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi saying, without mentioning Iran by name, that it was "spreading its ailment in the body."
Yemeni President Hadi directly challenged Iran in his remarks. He also called for his supporters to rise up in peaceful protest against the Shia Houthi rebels.
He said the airstrikes staged by Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Houthis must not stop before they surrender and return medium and heavy weapons they looted from army depots across much of the country.
Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement. Officials there had no immediate comment on Hadi's remarks.
Hadi fled Yemen earlier this week, making his way to Saudi Arabia after leaving the southern coastal city of Aden in the face of a push into southern Yemen by the Houthis and their allies, including forces loyal to ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Also addressing the summit, Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Salman, said the military campaign in Yemen would not stop before security and stability are restored in Yemen.
El-Sissi also endorsed a resolution adopted by Arab foreign ministers on Thursday for the creation of an Arab military force, saying the Arab world was currently facing 'unprecedented' threats.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Press Agency reported Saturday that its navy had evacuated 86 diplomats and others from Aden on Wednesday. It did not identify the nationalities of all those it evacuated in the operation, though it said diplomats from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar were on hand Saturday when those evacuated arrived at a Jiddah naval base.
Pakistan also announced Saturday it had two planes standing by to evacuate its citizens.
Dozens of foreign diplomats, including United Nations staff, still were awaiting evacuation Saturday by air in Sanaa, airport officials said on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
Of the Arab League's 22 heads of state, 14 were in attendance Saturday as the meeting began.
Houthi rebels made gains in the country's south and east on Friday Saudi-led air strikes that meant to halt the militia's efforts to overthrow President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Shia Muslim Houthi fighters and allied army units gained their first foothold on Yemen's Arabian Sea coast by seizing the port of Shaqra 100km (60 miles) east of Aden, residents told the Reuters news agency.
Explosions rang out across Aden late on Friday as Houthis made a push on the southern port city's airport, a witness said.
The advances threaten Hadi's last refuge in Yemen and potentially undermine the air campaign to support him.
The spokesman for the Saudi-led operation, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, told a news conference in Riyadh that defending the Aden government was the campaign's "main objective".
"The operation will continue as long as there is a need for it to continue," Asseri said.
Warplanes targeted Houthi forces controlling Yemen's capital Sanaa and their northern heartland on Friday. Asseri said that planes from the United Arab Emirates had carried out their first strikes in the past 24 hours.
In a boost for Saudi Arabia, Morocco said it would join the rapidly assembled Sunni Muslim coalition against the Houthis. Pakistan, named by Saudi Arabia as a partner, said it had made no decision on whether to contribute.
A regional contest
Riyadh’s military intervention is the latest front in a growing regional contest for power with Iran that is also playing out in Syria, where Tehran backs Assad’s government and Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shia militias are playing a major role in fighting.
Yemen's powerful ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose military units fight alongside the Houthis, called on Friday for a cessation of hostilities by both sides, according to a statement carried by his party's website.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said the air campaign could end within days.
He said the door was still open for dialogue with the Houthis, while in a Facebook posting, Hadi urged Yemenis to be patient and predicted the Houthis would soon be gone.
But the Houthis and allied army units seized the southern town of Shaqra in Abyan province on Friday, gaining access to the Arabian Sea, residents said.
Their entry into the city means they control most land routes to Aden and can block tribal fighters trying to come in to reinforce Hadi's troops.
Residents said dozens of pickup trucks loaded with tribal fighters have reached the town of Mudyah and were expected to clash with the Houthi forces based in Shaqra and the town of Lodar.
During a week of intense fighting, the Houthis have taken the Red Sea port of al-Mukha to Aden's northwest, and the city's northern outskirts, suggesting Aden is danger, despite the air strikes against the Houthis.
Witnesses in Sanaa said Houthi fighters and allied military units were re-positioning some anti-aircraft units at police stations in some neighbourhoods, causing panic among residents, who fear they will become targets for air strikes.
Residents said aircraft targeted bases around Sanaa of Republican Guards allied to the Houthis, and also struck near a military installation that houses missiles. The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency put the death toll in Sanaa at 24 and said 43 were wounded and 14 houses were destroyed.
Houthi-run al-Masirah television also said 15 people were killed in an air strike on a market in the northern city of Saada.
The coalition began air strikes on Thursday to try to roll back Houthi gains and shore up Hadi, who has been holed up in Aden after fleeing Sanaa in February.
Hadi left Aden on Thursday to attend the Arab summit in Egypt, where he aims to build support for the air strikes.
US President Barack Obama expressed his support for the Saudi-led military action in a phone call with Saudi King Salman on Friday, the White House said.
In his first reaction to the attacks, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi on Thursday called Saudi Arabia a bad neighbour, saying in a televised speech Yemenis would confront the "criminal, unjust and unjustified aggression".
Mosques in Riyadh on Friday preached fiery sermons against the Houthis and their Iranian allies, describing the fight as a religious duty. Saudi Arabia's top clerical council gave its blessing to the campaign.
In the Iranian capital Tehran, Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Kazem Sadeghi described the attacks as "an aggression and interference in Yemen’s internal affairs".
Iran has denounced the assault on the Houthis and demanded an immediate halt to Saudi-led military operations.
While US officials have downplayed the scope of the ties between Iran and the Houthis, Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir said members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed Hezbollah are on the ground advising the Houthis.
The Saudi military spokesman said there were no plans at this stage for ground force operations, but if the need arose, Saudi and allied ground forces would repel "any aggression."