Arab coalition resumes airstrikes against Yemen rebel forces
TAEZ (Yemen) - Saudi-led warplanes hit rebels in Yemen's third city Taez Wednesday as they seized a key army headquarters just hours after Riyadh announced a halt to the air campaign, an officer said.
The renewed strikes hit rebel forces inside the 35th Armoured Brigade headquarters which they seized from its loyalist garrison in heavy fighting, the officer said.
They also hit a gathering of the Iran-backed rebels and their allies near the city's central prison, he added.
Meanwhile, rebel forces in Yemen have released the defence minister, a brother of the exiled president and a general they had been holding since late March, a source close to mediators said Wednesday.
"Defence Minister General Mahmud al-Subaihi, General Nasser Mansour Hadi (the president's brother), and General Faisal Rajab have been freed," the source said.
The Saudi-led coalition announced it was halting a four-week air war in Yemen Wednesday but ground fighting between Iran-backed rebels and government loyalists raged on in a blow to US-led calls for renewed peace talks.
The air strikes stopped at midnight (2100 GMT Tuesday) but residents of Yemen's battleground second city Aden and third city Taez reported no let-up in fighting between the rebels and supporters of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
The coalition said its operations would now enter a political phase but left open the option of resuming the air raids if necessary.
In Taez, the Huthi Shiite rebels and their allies seized the opportunity to capture the headquarters of the 35th Armoured Brigade loyal to Hadi which they had besieged for nearly a week, an army officer said.
The fighting left "dozens dead and wounded", he said.
The World Health Organization says at least 944 people have been killed in Yemen since March 19 and there were calls from all sides for the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid.
But the continued fighting doused hopes of a swift resumption of aid flights to the Arab world's poorest country.
Riyadh said the strikes, which it launched on March 26 as the Huthis closed in on Hadi's last refuge in Aden, had removed threats to Saudi Arabia and its neighbours by destroying the rebels' air and missile capabilities.
But the rebels and their allies remain in control of the capital Sanaa and swathes of the country and Hadi is still in exile in Riyadh, where he fled when the raids began.
The coalition said an air and naval blockade would remain in place to prevent any arms deliveries to the rebels that might threaten the vital shipping lanes off Yemen or neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Washington has sent an aircraft carrier to the region to protect the key sea route from Asia and the Gulf to Europe and to monitor naval activity by Shiite Iran.
Riyadh has accused its regional rival of arming the rebels in a bid to establish a proxy on its doorstep, something strongly denied by Tehran, which offered its help in relaunching peace talks.
A coalition statement said the next steps would be a resumption of the political process, aid deliveries and "fighting terrorism".
Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, regarded by Washington as its most dangerous, has taken advantage of the air war and ground fighting between the rebels and Hadi loyalists to consolidate its grip on Hadramawt province in the southeast.
Washington, which was forced to withdraw its troops from a Yemen air base where they had been overseeing a longstanding drone war against the jihadists, hailed the end of the Saudi-led air campaign.
"The United States welcomes today's announcement by the government of Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners of the conclusion of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen," National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said.
"We continue to support the resumption of a UN-facilitated political process and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance."
UN-brokered talks between the warring parties broke down in February when Hadi fled to Aden after the Huthis took over the government.
There has been no UN envoy to Yemen since Moroccan diplomat Jamal Benomar stepped down last week in the face of coalition accusations that he had appeased the rebels.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif too welcomed the end of the air strikes and offered Tehran's help in bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table.
"Positive developments in Yemen should be followed by urgent humanitarian assistance, intra-Yemeni dialogue & broad-based govt. Ready to help," he tweeted from New York.
In a televised speech from his refuge in Riyadh, Hadi thanked the coalition for its support and refused to give up hope of returning from exile.
"We will soon return to our homeland, to Aden and Sanaa," he said.
Hadi again blamed the rebels and "their allies inside and outside" Yemen for the deadly fighting but said he stood ready to join renewed talks.
He called on all sides to work to implement a UN Security Council resolution adopted last week "which paves the way for positive and effective dialogue."
In Riyadh, a Western diplomat said he thought it was a "good time for the Saudis to get out of this", even though the political objectives had not been achieved.
"The Huthis are still there where they had been before," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.