Al Qaeda militants consolidated gains in a southeastern port city Friday, seizing weapons caches in the wake of their takeover of an oil terminal, an airport and a military base, security officials said.
Amid punishing hardship on the ground, at least 150,000 people have been displaced by the conflict raging in Yemen, the United Nations said, and the death toll – almost certainly under-reported – has surpassed 750.
Thick plumes of smoke rose Friday over Yemen’s capital, Sana, as hours of bombardment, some of the heaviest in weeks, shook the capital, including residential areas. Inner-city streets were deserted and hundreds more families sought safety outside Sana.
Yemen’s branch of Al Qaeda has exploited the turmoil to expand its territorial gains, especially in the key southern province of Hadramawt, where the port city of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest, has been a particular prize. On Friday, Al Qaeda fighters overran an arms depot that included armored vehicles and rockets, officials said.
Dozens of schools, mosques, hospitals, airports, bridges and factories have been hit in a concerted Saudi Arabia-led campaign of bombardment that is now in its fourth week, the U.N. said. In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, a spokesman for the military coalition said the strikes were being carried out in a carefully targeted manner.
The Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with the support of Washington, has taken aim at Iran-backed Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis. The insurgents last month drove the country’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, into exile.
The Saudi-led air campaign began after Hadi abandoned his last redoubt, the southern port city of Aden, which is now in ruins, pummeled by airstrikes and ravaged by close-quarters street fighting. Aid groups report overflowing morgues and growing shortages of everything from food to electricity. A few shipments of medical supplies have arrived, far outstripped by needs.
Meanwhile, a principal backer of the insurgents, deposed Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, on Friday dismissed reports that he intended to flee. Saleh was forced from office in 2012 but retained the loyalty of many key military units, which defected to the Houthi side when the conflict erupted.
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab TV channel Al Arabiya said Saleh loyalists in the ranks of the military and the Houthis had been hit hard by the airstrikes, and suggested that some key military defectors were returning to the government fold. It cited an unidentified Persian Gulf region official as saying Saleh had put out feelers about obtaining safe haven for himself and his family in an Arab capital or elsewhere.
On Facebook, Saleh denied any intention of leaving Yemen.
“I’m not the kind of person who hunts for refuge” in Saudi Arabia or Europe, the onetime Saudi ally wrote. “My home is my country.”
The report of 150,000 people internally displaced, which was released by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, doubled the world body's previous estimates. The number of deaths last month was almost certainly more than the 767 reported, the agency said, painting a portrait of widespread suffering.
“Thousands … have now fled their homes,” said a statement by Johannes van der Klaauw, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. “Ordinary families are struggling to access healthcare, water, food and fuel – basic requirements for their survival.”
In a sign of an accelerating social breakdown, the sight of even young teenagers carrying pistols has become commonplace. Among many, there is fury at Saudi Arabia – and the United States – over the scope of the destruction.
Power plants have been among the airstrike targets, OCHA said, and electrical output is faltering badly. Residents report spending hours each day in darkness, with access to clean water dwindling dramatically.
In Riyadh, the chief spokesman for the Saudi coalition, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, suggested that the insurgents were deliberately attempting to draw fire toward civilian areas.
“Houthis are using private properties and farms as ammunition dumps,” he said. “But we are fully aware of such maneuvers.”
Cease-fire calls have come from parties such as Iran and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but the Saudi military has said the campaign is putting crucial pressure on the Houthis, who last year surged out of their northern strongholds and overran Sana, seizing other large chunks of territory.
A U.N.-ordered arms embargo on the Houthis, imposed this week, can do little to address the huge stores of weaponry scattered at bases and arms depots across Yemen. Much of it was purchased with American funds, some earmarked to support the drone campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen franchise of the terrorist network.
Even in the midst of chaos, the drone campaign has pressed ahead, with a strike in the southern province of Shabwa this week killing two major suspected Al Qaeda figures.
Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer King from Cairo. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow @laurakingLAT on Twitter for news out of the Middle East