Saudi Arabia resumes airstrikes in Yemen, hours after suspending them

Saudi officials had signaled that negotiations may be at hand in Yemen. But with Houthi advances continuing and a resumption of airstrikes, prospects of a political resolution have receded. 

Hani Mohammed/AP
Smoke rises after a Saudi-led airstrike hit a site where many believe the largest weapons cache in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The Saudi-led coalition pounded Shiite rebels in Yemen on Tuesday, killing at least 19 in a city in the country's west, officials said.

Saudi Arabia's announcement Tuesday that it was suspending airstrikes on the Houthi movement in Yemen didn't stand up for long: Its warplanes pounded targets in the southwestern city of Taiz Wednesday.

The Saudi declaration had created hope that a political bargain to end Yemen's civil war might be in the offing. There was a flurry of speculation in that direction Tuesday, on the assumption that calling off airstrikes was a quid pro quo for something. But Wednesday's attacks indicate peace is a long way off for the Arab world's poorest country.

The New York Times reports that the airstrikes came during fighting for control of Taiz.

There was little evidence of change in the nature of the combat on Wednesday. In several areas of Taiz, fierce clashes erupted between the Houthis and their allies, on one side, and militiamen loyal to (Abdu Rabbu Mansour) Hadi on the other, according to Mohamed al-Haj, a member of the local council. The Houthi forces continued their advance, trying to capture a military brigade that declared its loyalty to Mr. Hadi.

The warplanes struck the Houthis in the morning. “There are many deaths on both sides,” Mr. Haj said.

In Aden, where weeks of urban warfare have destroyed neighborhoods and killed hundreds of people, there were exchanges of tank fire between the Houthis and their adversaries, mainly local fighters who favor an independent, southern state, residents said.

The Shiite Houthi movement is based in Yemen's north, which was a separate country from southern Yemen before reunification in 1990. Mr. Hadi is Saudi Arabia's favored choice to rule Yemen, and is currently living in exile in the Sunni monarchy's capital.

The Yemeni army has fractured during the current conflict: Some units loyal to former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of the Houthis, have defected to the rebels. Other units have chosen to remain on the sidelines, while in the south some army units are fighting the Houthis but favor independence – not a restoration of Hadi's rule.

And some troops are fighting for Hadi. Reuters reports that an army brigade in Taiz declared itself for the ousted president, leading to the clashes in the city.

Houthi fighters captured the compound of an army brigade loyal to the government in Yemen's central city of Taiz following heavy fighting. A Saudi air strike was conducted on the brigade headquarters shortly afterwards, residents said...

Militiamen in southern Yemen said late on Tuesday they would continue fighting the Houthis until they drove them out of the region, despite Saudi Arabia saying its month-old campaign against the Houthis had met its goals.

Southerners and Houthis fought clashes on Wednesday around the southern town of Dalea, a hotbed of southern separatism which has changed hands several times in the conflict. "This front will not stop its fight until all the south is purified from the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces," a statement by a group called the southern resistance movement said.

The US moved a carrier group toward Yemen's coast Monday, something it said was designed to protect shipping lanes. But without any clear maritime threat – the Houthis have no navy and have not expressed any interest in disrupting international shipping – some took it as sending a message to Iran, which the US, Saudi Arabia, and others allege is backing the Houthis. 

The White House warmly greeted the announcement from Saudi Arabia that the bombing campaign was over.

"We look forward to a shift from military operations to the rapid, unconditional resumption of all-party negotiations that allow Yemen to resume an inclusive political transition process as envisioned in the GCC Initiative," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.

"Having bravely and resolutely sought a democratic political transition, the Yemeni people deserve the opportunity to hold a peaceful debate about their new constitution, to participate in a credible and safe constitutional referendum, and to vote in free and fair national elections."

Hadi came to power in 2012 following talks brokered by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. But a promised new constitution, which the Houthis and other factions had hoped would lead to greater regional autonomy, has stalled. Disillusionment with the political process was one of the reasons the Houthis took to the battlefield last year, and eventually seized the capital, Sanaa.

As long as fighting for key cities like Aden and Taiz continue – airstrikes or not – the prospects for political negotiations look grim. And with separatist sentiment surging in the south, the way forward now looks more complicated than some kind of power-sharing agreement between the Houthis and those loyal to Hadi.

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