SANAA: The United Nations evacuated staff from war-torn Yemen on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) as Russia warned Saudi-led air strikes on Iranian-backed rebels were affecting crunch nuclear talks between world powers and Tehran.
Also, Arab coalition warplanes targeting Iran-backed rebels bombed the runway at the Yemeni capital’s international airport and killed 15 pro-rebel troops elsewhere in Sanaa, military and aviation sources said.
On the fourth night of raids against Shiite rebels and allied troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi-led strikes paralyzed the airport in the rebel-controlled capital.
“This was the first time they hit the runway” since the campaign began, an aviation source said, after UN staff were evacuated from Sanaa.
“The airport is completely out of service,” he said.
Witnesses reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing a large fire when the air facility was hit around midnight (9:00 pm on Saturday Manila time).
Meanwhile, overnight air strikes hit the headquarters of the rebel republican guard at Al-Subaha base in Sanaa, killing 15 soldiers, a military official said.
A medic at a military hospital in the capital said it had received 12 bodies and 18 wounded soldiers after the raid.
Air strikes also targeted an airbase in rebel-held Hudaida, in western Yemen, witnesses said, as part of efforts to destroy air defense capabilities.
Other raids targeted a base of the First Artillery Brigade in Saada, the northern stronghold of the Huthi Shiite rebels.
Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi urged his Arab allies to keep up the bombing raids in his country until the Huthi Shiite rebels surrender, branding them Iran’s “puppet.”
The impoverished and deeply tribal Arabian Peninsula state, on the front line of the US battle against Al-Qaeda, is the scene of the latest emerging proxy struggle between Middle East powers.
A Sunni Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, is battling to avoid having a pro-Iran regime on its doorstep, as the Huthi rebels tighten the noose around Hadi’s southern stronghold of Aden.
“I call for this operation to continue until this gang surrenders and withdraws from all locations it has occupied in every province,” Hadi told an Arab League summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
“I say to Iran’s puppet and whoever is with him, you are the one who destroyed Yemen with your political immaturity,” Hadi said.
He later flew to Saudi Arabia with King Salman and does not plan to return to Yemen until “the situation settles,” Foreign Minister Riyad Yassin said.
“The Huthis are trying to take it [Aden] by any means to impose a new reality on the ground before the summit ends,” Yassin added.
Late Saturday, anti-Huthi popular committees fighters were reported to have taken full control of Aden airport with the loss of five men, and nine killed on the rebel side.
Russia’s chief negotiator in the Iranian nuclear talks said Moscow hoped that the Yemen fighting would not jeopardize the talks between Tehran and world powers under way in Switzerland.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing that the tragedy that is happening in this country [Yemen] is having an impact on the atmosphere of the negotiations,” Moscow’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
“We hope that the situation in Yemen will not bring about a change in the position of certain participants.”
As night fell on Saturday, coalition air strikes resumed for a fourth night, residents of the capital said.
More than 200 staff from the UN, foreign embassies and other organizations were evacuated by air earlier in the day, aid workers said.
According to Saudi Arabia, more than 10 countries have joined the coalition defending Hadi.
The Western-backed leader had gone into hiding earlier in the week as rebels bore down on Aden and a warplane attacked the presidential palace there.
Hadi surfaced in Riyadh on Thursday before heading to the Egypt summit.
At least 61 people have been killed and around 200 wounded in three days of fighting between Shiite rebels and anti-Huthi militia in Aden, the city’s health department director Al-Kheder Lassouar said.
Fourteen charred bodies were also pulled from an arms depot in a cave near the port city after a series of massive blasts, he said.
The cause was not immediately clear, but residents had been looting the arsenal of Soviet-era weapons, apparently to defend themselves as the city slides into chaos.
The two-day Arab summit, which opened on Saturday, is expected to back the offensive against the rebels and approve the creation of a joint military force to tackle extremists.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told fellow leaders the region faced “unprecedented” threats.
And Saudi King Salman vowed that the air strikes would continue until they bring “security” to the Yemeni people.
But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Arab leaders to “lay down clear guidelines to peacefully resolve the crisis in Yemen.”