Armed Men Back Pro-Saudi Forces Push to Take Yemen Airport

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Unidentified men armed with advanced military equipment are fighting alongside forces loyal to Yemen’s president to retake Aden airport from the Shiite Houthi rebels, residents of the southern coastal city said.

More than two dozen gunmen helped troops backing President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi seize back part of the airport, Nabil Quaiti and Saleh Salem said by phone. Saudi Arabia said on Sunday it hadn’t sent troops to Yemen after Al Jazeera television and other media outlets reported that their soldiers were seen near the southern port.

“When I tried to take a photo of them with my mobile, one pointed his gun at me,” Salem said. “They were fully armed.”

A Saudi-led coalition’s six-week air campaign has largely failed to roll back the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Aden. Securing the city is seen as a necessary step to the coalition’s attempt to return Hadi’s government to power after the president fled the impoverished country to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia may stop some air strikes to provide humanitarian relief for Yemen, the kingdom’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Monday in an e-mailed statement. Al-Jubeir warned the Houthis not to take advantage of the possible halt, which Saudi Arabia will discuss with coalition members.

Kerry Visit

Clashes raged around the Aden airport Monday as coalition airstrikes tried to dislodge the rebels. The Houthis control the airport district of Khour Maksar, hill-top positions around the presidential palace in Crater and parts of the Mualla district, according to Quaiti.

In the past year, the Houthis have advanced from their northern base to occupy the capital, Sana’a, and then pushed Hadi from his remaining stronghold in Aden this year. He then fled Yemen, where more than half of the country’s 25 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Saudi capital on May 6 and May 7, according to acting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. He will meet with senior government leaders to discuss issues related to regional security.

Saudi Arabia began the offensive in March with support from several other predominantly Sunni-Muslim nations to restore Hadi to power. Senegalese President Macky Sall will send 2,000 troops to support the Saudi effort in in Yemen, L’Observateur reported Monday, citing a media briefing with journalists.

The intervention has escalated the conflict in Yemen, a country located among major oil producing nations and adjacent to key shipping routes where a power vacuum has allowed al-Qaeda to establish a base. The United Nations says more than 300,000 people have been displaced by the war.

The humanitarian situation is “catastrophic,” Salem said. “There is a lot of damage to the infrastructure and buildings.”

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