A Saudi air strike late Sunday has reportedly killed dozens, including women and children, in a north Yemen town known to support that country’s Houthi rebels. The strike highlights growing concern about stability on the Arabian peninsula as the US is reportedly becoming more involved in planning and executing strikes on Yemen’s anti-government militants.
A spokesman for the Houthis claimed that a Saudi “massacre” killed 54 people in the town of Al Nadheer in the northern province of Saada, reports Agence France-Presse. The group also claimed on Sunday night that Saudi forces were advancing on the nearby town of Zawa, also in Saada, and had launched “more than 200 shells.”
It is the second reported air strike on the border town of Razeh in a week, says Al Jazeera. An earlier air strike in a market there is said to have killed 70.
There has been no independent verification of these claims and little word from the governments of Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
Citing Iran’s Press TV and the Arabic-language news site Al Baida, Yemeni news site Al Sahwa Yemen reports that Saudi military sources say they have taken several Houthi positions in Saada and captured an unknown number of fighters.
They say Saudi forces “repelled rocket attacks launched by the Houthi fighters,” who were planning an offensive inside Saudi Arabia. However, rebel sources instead tell Al Sahwa Yemen that Saudi forces targeted civilian areas with 60 rounds of air strikes.
Saudi Arabia became active in Yemen’s 5-year-old Houthi conflict on Nov. 3, when rebels briefly seized two Saudi villages in a cross border raid that also killed a border guard, says AFP. The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this fall that the Saudi government has been deeply worried that growing instability in Yemen could lead to its use as a base for Al Qaeda, which is committed to overthrowing the Saudi royal family.
As the world’s largest oil exporter and a major US ally, Saudi concerns weigh heavily in Washington.
The strikes comes just three days after The New York Times reported that the United States has provided weapons and logistical support to Yemeni government strikes against “suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda within its borders.”
That involvement has raised questions over whether the US has been active in Yemen – and Saudi Arabia’s – fight against the Houthis as well. Hours after Sunday’s air strike, US Admiral Mike Mullen praised the attack and repeated worries that Yemen could become “another safe haven” for terrorism in remarks to the Associated Press. However, AP says he “refused to discuss whether the United States played an active role in the recent operation.”
While both the Houthis and the government of Yemen insist their conflict is not sectarian, it has strong religious overtones, reports Al Jazeera.
The Houthis are members of the Zaidi sect – which, though an offshoot of Shiite Islam is in many ways closer to Sunni Islam. The sect’s leaders ruled Yemen until its 1962 revolution. Since then they have felt socially and economically marginalized as the influence of Sunni Wahhabism, and its patron state Saudi Arabia, has grown.
According to Al Jazeera, the current conflict was restarted in 2004 when Yemeni officials tried to arrest a Zaidi religious leader and former member of parliament, Hussein Al Houthi, on whose head it had placed a $55,000 bounty.