UPDATE 1-Fighting escalates across Yemen, first air strikes on capital Sanaa – Reuters


* Nationwide combat despite declared end of Saudi campaign

* Saudi-led air strikes hit capital after days of calm

* Aden residents say foreign ships shell near port

* Houthi bastions along Saudi border bombed, shelled

(Adds detail, background)

By Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari

ADEN/CAIRO, April 26 (Reuters) – Air raids, naval shelling
and ground fighting shook Yemen on Sunday in some of the most
widespread combat since a Saudi-led alliance intervened last
month against Iranian-allied Houthi militia who have seized wide
areas of the country.

There were at least five air strikes on military positions
and an area near the presidential palace compound in the
Houthi-held capital Sanaa at dawn on Sunday, while warships
pounded an area near the port of the southern city of Aden,
residents said.

“The explosions were so big they shook the house, waking us
and our kids up. Life has really become unbearable in this
city,” a Sanaa resident who gave his name as Jamal told Reuters.

The strikes on Sanaa were the first since the Saudi-led
coalition said last week it was scaling back a campaign against
the Houthis. But the air raids soon resumed as the Houthis’
nationwide gains had not been notably rolled back, and there has
been no visible progress toward peace talks.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and arch Sunni
Muslim regional adversary of Shi’ite Muslim Iran, feels menaced
by the Shi’ite Houthi advance across Yemen since last September,
when the rebels captured the capital.

The Houthis later forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi
into exile. The Saudi-led intervention aims to restore Hadi and
prevent Yemen disintegrating as a state, with al Qaeda militants
thriving in the chaos and one of the world’s busiest oil
shipping lanes off the Yemeni coast at risk.

WARSHIPS

Eyewitnesses in Aden said foreign warships shelled Houthi
emplacements around the city’s main commercial port and
dockyard, the first time they had been targeted.

Aden residents reported heavy clashes between local armed
militia from Yemen’s Sunni south and Houthis backed up by army
units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Sources in the militia said they retaliated for the first
time with tank and Katyusha rocket fire. Air strikes backed up
local militia in clashes near Aden’s international airport.

In the southern province of Dalea, militia said they had
fought for hours to retake several rural districts from the
Houthis with the help of air strikes. The fighting left around
25 Houthis and six local militiamen dead.

A grouping of armed tribesmen and Sunni Islamist fighters in
the strategically important central Yemeni city of Taiz took
back several districts from the Houthis in heavy fighting,
according to residents there.

Medics reported that four civilians were killed when a
rocket landed in a street and shelling damaged a main hospital.

The battlefield setbacks for the Houthis occurred in an area
they held largely unopposed for more than a month, and suggest
that the air campaign has emboldened armed opposition groups.

Other air strikes hit Houthi bastions in Saada province
along Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia, and Saudi
ground forces also shelled the city of Haradh in neighbouring
Hajja province, residents said.

Iran’s navy chief said on Sunday that it would keep warships
in the Gulf of Aden for at least several months, a stance that
could harden U.S. concerns about Tehran trying to supply
advanced weapons to the Houthis.

Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, quoted by the state news agency
IRNA, said the ships had deployed to protect shipping routes
against piracy. The Islamic Republic denies giving military
support to the Houthis.

The United States sent an aircraft carrier and a missile
cruiser to support seven U.S. warships already near the Gulf of
Aden this week, and warned Iran not to send weapons to Yemen
that could be used to threaten shipping traffic.

The Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb strait form one of
the world’s busiest oil and shipping choke points. Sayyari said
the 34th Fleet remained close to the Bab al-Mandeb,
contradicting an account from U.S. officials on Friday that
Iranian warships were heading eastwards away from Yemen.

(Additional reporting by Sam Wilkin in Dubai; Writing by Noah
Browning; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

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