ADEN, April 3 — Saudi-led air raids drove Yemeni rebels from the presidential palace in the main southern city of Aden today as the UN reported more than 500 dead in two weeks of fighting.
The impoverished Arabian Peninsula state has sunk further into chaos since the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 26 to try to halt the rebel advance.
The turmoil has raised fears that al-Qaeda will expand its foothold in the deeply tribal country, which borders oil-rich Saudi Arabia and lies near key shipping routes.
A day after al-Qaeda militants stormed a jail and freed 300 inmates, residents said the Sunni extremists had overrun large parts of Mukalla, the capital of the southeastern province of Hadramawt.
UN aid chief Valerie Amos said yesterday that 519 people had been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in two weeks of fighting in Yemen, adding she was “extremely concerned” for the safety of trapped civilians.
The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the foremost Shiite and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East.
Iran has angrily rejected accusations it has armed the Houthi Shiite rebels, who have allied with military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize large parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.
The air strikes failed to stop the rebel forces battling their way into Aden, the last bastion of supporters of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who has fled to Saudi Arabia.
Yesterday, in a highly symbolic victory, they captured Hadi’s Aden palace.
But after a night of intense bombardment by the coalition, rebel forces quit the hilltop complex early today, according to a senior official.
“The Houthi militia and their allies withdrew before dawn from the al-Maashiq palace,” said the official in Aden, who did not want to be named.
A security source and the official Saudi news agency SPA also reported the anti-Hadi fighters had left the palace.
The rebel forces retreated to the nearby central district of Khor Maksar, where 12 rebels were killed in an overnight attack by pro-Hadi militiamen, a military source said.
The coalition insisted late yesterday that the situation in Aden was “stable”.
“Houthi militias are not in control of any government buildings in Aden,” said spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri.
Calls for jihad
In the southeastern city of Mukalla, several hundred al-Qaeda militants flying the black banner of the extremist network were seen patrolling and setting up roadblocks in central and western areas.
The Sunni extremists launched calls from mosques in the city for “jihad against Shiites”, according to residents.
Before the latest chaos erupted, Yemen had been a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to carry out drone attacks on its territory.
The collapse of the government in Yemen forced the United States to close its embassy and withdraw US special operations forces that were helping Yemeni government forces battle al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
As a result of the US pullout from Yemen, “our capability is diminished” against AQAP, a senior military official in Washington said yesterday.
As part of its logistical support for the Saudi-led campaign, the US will provide aerial refuelling, the official said.
The US was also delivering intelligence from surveillance satellites and aircraft to help the Saudis monitor their border and to track the location of Houthi rebels as they push south, the official added.
The intelligence was helping create “a battlefield picture” of where the Houthis were deployed and to enable coalition aircraft to avoid causing civilian casualties, the official said.
New clashes were reported today in areas near the Aden palace and the city’s international airport, which was bombarded during the night by coalition warships, according to military sources.
They said a plane parked at the airport was destroyed.
China, meanwhile, said it had evacuated 225 people from 10 different countries from Yemen by a missile frigate, an unprecedented move underscoring its growing global reach.
The evacuees included 176 people from Pakistan, the foreign ministry said, with the remainder from Ethiopia, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Britain, Canada and Yemen. — AFP