Saudi-led warplanes carried out an intensive bombardment of Yemen's Houthi rebels on Thursday after the Iranian-backed insurgents ignored a short-lived reprieve and pressed their advance toward the strategic port city of Aden.
Reports from the southern gateway cities targeted by at least 20 airstrikes early Thursday portrayed an escalating humanitarian crisis, with civilian casualties mounting and an exodus that has already uprooted 150,000 also gaining momentum.
Explosions rocked the cities of Taizz and Ibb, at key crossroads between Sana, the capital, and Aden, as the Saudi warplanes struck suspected hideouts and weapons caches of the Houthis.
Riyadh and its Arab Gulf neighbors accuse Iran of arming the Houthis, who adhere to the Zaidi sect that is an offshoot of the Shiite Islamic faith dominant in Iran. The Saudi government sees the Houthi rebellion that has taken over nine of Yemen's 21 provinces as a proxy war waged by Tehran to spread Shiite influence in the region. About two-thirds of Yemenis are Sunni Muslims, the dominant sect in the Arabian Peninsula.
The chaos that drove Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to flee the capital and proclaim Aden the temporary seat of power has killed more than 1,000, the United Nations' resident coordinator, Paolo Lembo, told Yemen's SABA news agency on Thursday.
In Sana, which the Houthi rebels have controlled for weeks, the Save the Children charity said damage from airstrikes and injuries to its personnel had compelled it to temporarily suspend operations. The main office in Sana was damaged by an airstrike on Monday, the fourth facility of the relief group to be hit in the past month, Yemen country director Edward Santiago told SABA.
"Even stopping for a few days could cost lives, especially of children, with up to 850,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition in the poorest Arab country," Santiago was quoted as saying, adding that it was uncertain how long the shutdown would last.
Panicked foreign residents and workers in Yemen have continued to besiege the last evacuation operations in the country that has been consumed by sectarian fighting for eight months. The Russian government sent two planes late Wednesday to rescue 197 third-country nationals from Sana. They included 20 Americans "who became stranded in Yemen when the U.S. government announced it had no plans to organize an evacuation," Russia Today television reported. The broadcast included interviews with U.S. citizens who said they were angered by the State Department's emailed advice "to find your way out."
Saudi Arabia had announced on Tuesday that its month-old Operation Decisive Storm was ending and that the focus of counterinsurgency had shifted to negotiations and humanitarian assistance. But any suggested reprieve was short-lived, and less than 48 hours later airstrikes early Thursday targeted Houthi bases and assembly points for their concerted campaign to take Aden.
The Houthi forces include supporters of exiled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was overthrown in 2012, and defectors from the army nominally controlled by Hadi, who has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia and is suspected by many Yemenis on all sides of the conflict of encouraging the indiscriminate airstrikes.
The United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, quit the job last week, exuding frustration over the combatants' resistance to negotiating a resolution of the conflict. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday nominated a replacement, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a respected Mauritanian diplomat who currently heads the world body's campaign to eradicate the deadly Ebola virus.