Yemeni Shiite rebels shell Aden, as airstrikes continue

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s Shiite rebels and security forces loyal to the former president launched a fresh offensive Monday against the southern city of Aden, shelling it and battling local militias, but were pushed back by at least two airstrikes on the fifth day of a Saudi-led air campaign, security officials said.

The rebels, known as Houthis, meanwhile accused the Saudi-led coalition of bombing a displaced persons camp in the northern rebel stronghold of Saada, killing 40 people, including women and children. The report was carried on the rebels’ TV network.  

However, witnesses told The Associated Press that the camp — used to house displaced people from an earlier conflict that ended five years ago — is now occupied by Houthi forces and that most of those killed were fighters.

It was not immediately possible to resolve the conflicting accounts. Aden, the economic center of the Arab world’s poorest nation, was declared the provisional capital by embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi before he fled the country last week.

The Houthis overran the capital Sanaa in September. They are allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down following a 2011 Arab Spring uprising but has maintained influence through loyalists in the security forces.

Yemeni security officials say the combined force of Houthis and Saleh loyalists is positioned about 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Aden, near the southern city of Zinjibar. The rebels have used artillery to target pro-Hadi militias known as the Popular Committees. Battles are also underway near the airport.

At least two airstrikes targeted the rebels, forcing them to retreat, the officials said. There was no immediate word on casualties. The account of the fighting was confirmed by four military and security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Emboldened by the airstrikes, the Popular Committees have largely held their ground in Aden province and still control most of the city. The death toll since the airstrikes began Thursday has reached 86, with some 600 people wounded, according to Abdel-Nasser al-Wali, head of a local medical center in Aden.

Meanwhile in Sanaa, a series of airstrikes shook the city overnight and early Monday morning. The strikes have targeted militants, jets, air defense systems and Scud missile launch pads that could threaten Saudi Arabia.

Later in the day, the officials said aircraft struck areas near the presidential palace in Sanaa. The daily airstrikes have bred a climate of anxiety and uncertainty in Sanaa. Schools are shuttered, residents are staying indoors, and hundreds have fled to the safety of nearby villages.

Leaders meeting in Egypt for a two-day Arab League summit unveiled plans Sunday to form a joint Arab military intervention force — setting the stage for an escalation in the conflict between U.S.-allied Arab states and Iran over influence in the region. Critics of the Houthis charge that they are an Iranian proxy. Iran has provided aid to the Houthis, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them.

So far the strikes have targeted eight out of Yemen’s 21 provinces. Since the air campaign began, the Houthis have arrested about 140 foreign nationals on suspicion that they are providing the Saudis with intelligence on the locations of army barracks, radars and air defense positions, according to the rebel-controlled Interior Ministry.

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