A quiet night in Yemen’s capital as Saudi halts offensive

Mideast Saudi Arabia Yemen
A Saudi soldier sits on top of an armor vehicle as he aims his weapons, on the border with Yemen, at a military point in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, was calm overnight and into Wednesday morning after Saudi Arabia declared an end to its month-long airstrikes targeting Yemen’s Iran-backed Shiite rebels and their allies, a campaign that has claimed hundreds of lives and pushed the impoverished Arab country deeper into chaos.

For the residents, it was the quietest night in almost four weeks, with no massive explosions or new scenes of devastation to wake up to.

The rebels, known as Houthis, called for a massive rally, urging supporters over their Al-Masirah TV network to take to the streets of Sanaa later Wednesday to mark the end of the bombardment and to denounce the Saudi “aggression.”

Iran is a staunch critic of the Saudi campaign, though Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Wednesday welcomed the kingdom’s announcement.

“We believe this was a positive step,” said Marzieh Afkham, and added that “political cooperation” by all parties is needed to resolve the Yemen crisis.

The U.S.-backed airstrikes campaign, launched March 26, was aimed at crushing the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had taken over Sanaa and much of northern Yemen.

The kingdom said its aim was also to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia last month in the face of the Houthi advance.

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia declared an end of its “Decisive Storm” air campaign against the Houthis and announced the start of a more limited military campaign aimed at preventing the rebels from operating.

Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said that the campaign of heavy airstrikes would be scaled down, but did not confirm whether they would stop altogether.

“There might be less frequency and the scope of the actions might be less, but there will be military action,” Asiri said. He added that Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies, mainly Gulf Arab countries, were concluding this phase of the operation upon the request of the “legitimate” Yemeni government, led by Hadi.

He also said the goals of the coalition’s new phase, called “Renewal of Hope,” are to prevent Houthi rebels from “targeting civilians or changing realities on the ground.”

In an apparent good-will gesture on Wednesday, the rebels released from detention the country’s Defense Minister Mahmoud Al-Subaih, the brother of the embattled President Hadi and a third military commander. The three were held for nearly a month by the Houthis.

The move could reflect an imminent political deal between Hadi and the rebels and their allies.

In one of the first regional reactions to Yemen developments, Pakistan, which did not join the Saudi-led coalition although it supported the campaign, said it welcomed the end of the airstrikes and expressed hope this would “pave the way for political solution of the crisis in Yemen.”

However, fighting continued on the ground Wednesday in the southern port city of Aden, which the Houthis have failed to fully wrest from the hands of Hadi loyalists.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that the violence in Yemen has killed 944 people since the start of the airstrikes, and wounded 3,500.

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