Intense fighting in central districts of the port city of Aden has killed nearly 200 people in recent days, medical officials said Monday, as the Saudi-led military coalition pressed ahead with its bombing campaign against Shiite Muslim rebels.
Yemen's capital, Sana, was hit by heavy airstrikes answered by antiaircraft fire, and nearly a dozen civilians were reported killed in an outlying area of the city. The 11 civilians killed in the village of Bayt Rejal, west of Sana, included three children, according to medical officials, who said two dozen people were hurt.
Amid warnings from international organizations of an impending humanitarian disaster, most foreign governments have shuttered their embassies. China was the latest, closing its embassy in Sana and its consulate in Aden. Ships have been plucking stranded foreigners to safety, but approaching the port of Aden has become too unsafe for most.
In Washington, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Jubeir, said the airstrikes by Saudi warplanes have the Houthi rebels on the run, causing them to disperse in urban areas, where they are using civilians as human shields.
“They are losing,” he told reporters at the Saudi Embassy. “To let them keep any of their ill-gotten gains would not be responsible. It would just encourage more bad behavior.”
However, in Aden, Yemen's commercial hub, nearly two weeks of Saudi-led airstrikes have been unable to turn back an offensive by the Houthi insurgents. But the Iran-backed rebels have not been able to strike a decisive blow and seize the city.
Aden was the last redoubt of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last month. The Saudi campaign is aimed at restoring his rule, but it has exacerbated sectarian tension not only in Yemen but around the region. Iran is the main Shiite power and Saudi Arabia its chief Sunni rival.
According to Jubeir, Houthi forces have established command centers in residential areas and hotels to incur civilian casualties and turn public perception against the Saudis. But he insisted that Saudi airstrikes have been accurate and have avoided hitting noncombatants.
“You can never be sure about [civilian casualties] in warfare,” he said. “But we exercise extreme caution.”
In the near term, there are no plans to introduce ground troops in Yemen, Jubeir said.
“No options are taken off the table, but we're not there yet,” he said. “Right now, we're in the air phase.”
Houthis, meanwhile, continued arresting members of the Sunni political party Islah. More than 135 members are in rebel custody, officials said.
The fighting has given an opening to Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda, which seized the southeastern port of Mukalla last week, freeing hundreds of prisoners and looting the local branch of the Central Bank.
Until the current conflict erupted, the United States was carrying out regular drone strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni affiliate is known.
Al-Alayaa is a special correspondent. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.