Heavy Clashes on Saudi-Yemen Border; Hadi Government Pleads for Troops

ADEN (Reuters) -

Saudi troops clashed with Yemeni Houthi fighters on Tuesday in the heaviest exchange of cross-border fire since the start of a Saudi-led air offensive last week, while Yemen’s foreign minister called for a rapid Arab intervention on the ground.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Arab states in a six-day-old air campaign against the Shi’ite Houthis, who emerged as the most powerful force in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country when they seized Yemen’s capital last year.

The Saudis say their aim is to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who left the country last week. The Houthis are allied with Saudi Arabia’s regional foe Iran, and backed by army units loyal to long-term ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was toppled three years ago after “Arab Spring” demonstrations.

The conflict has brought civil war to a country already on the verge of chaos and forced Washington to evacuate its personnel from one of the main battlefields in the secret U.S. drone war against al-Qaida.

Residents and tribal sources in north Yemen reported artillery and rocket exchanges along several stretches of the Saudi border. Explosions and heavy gunfire were heard and Saudi helicopters flew overhead, they said.

In the southern port of Aden, Houthi fighters and allied army units pressed an offensive against forces loyal to Hadi, trying to capture the last remaining major stronghold of the absent president’s forces.

At least 36 people were killed when Houthi forces shelled Hadi loyalists in Aden. Jets from the Saudi-led coalition bombed Houthi positions near the airport.

Hadi’s rump government, now based in Saudi Arabia, is calling for Riyadh to escalate the air war into an invasion.

Asked by an interviewer on pan-Arab media channel al-Arabiya Hadath whether he sought an Arab ground intervention, Yemeni foreign minister Riyadh Yasseen responded: “Yes, we are asking for that, and as soon as possible, in order to save our infrastructure and save Yemenis under siege in many cities.”

Saudi authorities say they have gathered troops along the border in preparation for any possible ground offensive, but have given no timetable to send them in. Pakistan has also said it is sending troops to support Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi fighters are drawn from a Zaidi Shi’ite minority that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962. They are backed by military units still loyal to Saleh, himself a member of the Zaidi sect who fought to crush the Houthis while in power but has now allied with them.

Tension in the border area has mounted since an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition killed at least 40 people at the Mazraq camp for displaced people near Haradh on Monday.