Saudi Arabia pledges to cover entire humanitarian aid for Yemen
SANAA - Saudi Arabia pledged Saturday to cover the entire $274 million in humanitarian aid sought by the UN for conflict-torn Yemen, which has also been the target of Saudi-led air strikes against Shiite rebels.
The United Nations says hundreds of people have died and thousands of families fled their homes in the war, which has also killed six Saudi security personnel in border skirmishes.
At least 27 more people died in the southwestern city of Taez during overnight clashes between loyalist forces and the Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels as well as Saudi-led coalition air raids, medical sources said.
Saudi King Salman ordered the humanitarian pledge following a United Nations appeal on Friday for $274 million (253 million euros) in emergency assistance for the millions affected by Yemen's war.
The kingdom "stands with its Yemeni brothers" and hopes for "the restoration of security and stability," the state Saudi Press Agency said, quoting an official statement.
UN Humanitarian Coordinator Johannes Van Der Klaauw said in the appeal: "Ordinary families are struggling to access healthcare, water, food and fuel -- basic requirements for their survival."
Aid has only trickled into the country, largely because of restrictions imposed by the coalition on the country's air space and sea ports.
The Huthi rebels swept into the capital Sanaa last September from their highland stronghold and then advanced south on the port city of Aden, forcing President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Riyadh.
The coalition began its campaign after Saudi Arabia feared the Huthis, allied with army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, would shift Yemen into the orbit of Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia's regional rival.
Residents said explosions and gunfire shook Taez overnight during fighting between Hadi loyalists and the rebels.
Nineteen rebels, four soldiers of a mechanised army unit loyal to the president and four other pro-Hadi fighters were killed, a medical source said.
Rival fighters also clashed Friday night in districts of Aden, the main southern city, residents and security sources said.
Pro-Hadi forces backed by air strikes held off rebels battling for the past week for control of Aden's refinery, 15 kilometres (nine miles) to the west of the city.
The Yemen conflict has sent tensions soaring between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- the foremost Sunni and Shiite Muslim powers in the Middle East, respectively.
Tehran is a key ally of the Huthis but denies arming them.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that his country's military should not be seen as a threat in the Middle East.
The presence of Iranian navy ships "in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden is intended to ensure the security of neighbouring countries and maritime traffic," he said in an Army Day ceremony.
On Friday, Iran submitted a four-point Yemen peace plan to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
It calls for a ceasefire and immediate end to all foreign military attacks, the urgent delivery of humanitarian and medical aid, a resumption of political talks and the formation of a national unity government.
"It is imperative for the international community to get more effectively involved in ending the senseless aerial attacks and establishing a ceasefire," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote in a letter to Ban.
In Riyadh, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri said late Friday that "from this afternoon we have started operations in Taez".
There had been 100 sorties in Yemen on Thursday, he said, indicating no early end to the operation.
"This works needs patience, persistence and precision. We are not in a hurry... We have the time and we have the capabilities."
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, opposing forces in the southern city of Lahej, near Aden, had endangered a hospital.
"Fighters on both sides in Lahej have unlawfully put a hospital in the middle of a battle," said Joe Stork, the watchdog's deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
Yemen is also a front line in the US war on Al-Qaeda, which has exploited the growing turmoil to expand its control of areas in the southeast of the deeply tribal Arabian Peninsula country.
On Friday, Al-Qaeda overran a key army camp in the Hadramawt provincial capital Mukalla, seizing heavy weapons and consolidating its grip on the city, an official and residents said.
The World Health Organization, in its latest toll, said 767 people have died in Yemen's war since March 19 and more than 2,900 were wounded. The majority have been civilians.