Iran deployed warships near Yemen, Iranian state media reported Wednesday, raising the stakes in the confrontation between a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition and Shiite Muslim militants aligned with Iran.
The dispatch of a naval destroyer and another vessel to the area, which was reported by Iran's English-language state broadcaster Press TV, marked Tehran’s first overt military involvement since the Saudi-led air campaign began two weeks ago. Houthi rebels have received aid from Iran, but the Iranian government has denied arming them.
The Houthis, allied with Yemeni military units loyal to deposed strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been waging an offensive against forces allied with the internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Fighting has been focused in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen’s main commercial hub, but airstrikes have pummeled insurgent positions across the country, inflicting heavy civilian casualties and setting the stage for a humanitarian crisis whose effects are already being felt.
Press TV, the Iranian outlet, said the warships’ mission was to safeguard naval routes. Impoverished but strategic Yemen lies alongside key oil-shipping lanes.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said Iran has the right to send ships into international waters but won’t be allowed into Yemeni territorial waters.
The Iranian move comes on the heels of a U.S. announcement that it was expediting weapons deliveries and increasing intelligence-sharing with its Persian Gulf ally Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-led air campaign, which began March 26, has slowed but not halted the Houthi offensive in Aden, which was Hadi’s last stronghold before being forced to flee the country. He is sheltering in Riyadh.
At least 643 people, many of them children, have died in the past three weeks of fighting, and more than 100,000 people have been displaced, the World Health Organization said this week.
The situation has been particularly dire in Aden, where street fighting has been raging in central districts. The capital, Sana, has been hit by heavy bombardment that, together with water and power cuts and shortages of supplies, has sent many civilians fleeing for what they hope will be safer areas in the countryside.
Overnight and on Wednesday, warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition hit an air base in the south of Yemen that had been crucial to the American drone war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula before it was overrun by pro-Saleh forces. Houthi loyalists were thought to still be inside the base.
Al-Alayaa is a special correspondent.