Saudi-led airstrikes targeted Iran-backed rebels and their allies in Yemen Wednesday, hours after Riyadh declared an end to a nearly monthlong air campaign.
The Shiite forces later said they would welcome United Nations-led peace talks to end a conflict that’s killed hundreds without dislodging them from the capital.
The rebels, known as Houthis, say they call for a resumption of dialogue and any efforts under the auspices of the U.N. that lead to a peaceful compromise.
“We welcome any United Nations efforts that are on the side of peaceful solutions,” Houthi spokesman Mohammad Abdul-Salam said in a statement, which came as thousands of angry Houthi supporters marched in the capital, Sanaa, denouncing what they described as “Saudi-American aggression.”
The continuing Saudi-led strikes suggest that the U.S.-backed offensive, aimed at restoring Yemen’s internationally recognized president, is entering a new phase in which military action will be scaled back but not halted.
Saudi Arabia will continue to respond if rebels carry out any “aggressive moves,” the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. warned.
“If the Houthis or their allies make any aggressive moves there will be a response,” ambassador Adel al-Jubeir told reporters.
The air raids hit rebel positions in the southern port of Aden and central city of Taiz as ground fighting between the rebels and their allies against supporters of exiled President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi continued in both areas, Yemeni officials said.
Sanaa was calm, however, as residents experienced their quietest night in almost four weeks and did not wake up to new scenes of devastation. Late in the day, thousands of pro-Houthi demonstrators marched in the city.
The strikes in Taiz hit the Houthis as they gathered at a military headquarters they control near an airport to the city’s southeast, officials said. Also targeted was Aden, where aircraft blasted rebel forces in outlying districts. In both areas, the Houthis are fighting alongside forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Street fighting continued in both cities, especially Taiz, where officials said pro-government forces control most of the city but have been in heavy combat with the rebels, killing dozens on both sides. In Aden, rebels fired mortars, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Iran has provided political and humanitarian support to the Houthis, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them. IranWednesday welcomed the Saudi decision to halt the operation codenamed “Decisive Storm” and launch a new one titled “Renewal of Hope.”
The Saudi-led air campaign, launched March 26, was aimed at crushing the Houthis and allied military units loyal to Saleh.
But the rebels and their allies have lost little ground, and Hadi remains in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Aden, where he had established a temporary capital before fleeing the country last month, is gripped by fierce fighting.
Al-Qaeda’s powerful local affiliate has exploited the chaos to seize the southeastern port city of Mukalla.
The U.S. welcomed the conclusion of the Saudi-led operation, saying it looked forward to a shift from military operations to a quick resumption of negotiations.
“We strongly urge all Yemeni parties, in particular the Houthis and their supporters, to take this opportunity to return to these negotiations as part of the political dialogue,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a quick end to fighting and the resumption of U.N.-led peace talks to end the conflict. The U.N. chief said he “took note” of Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it was concluding airstrikes and expressed concern at the resumption of fighting Wednesday.
In an apparent goodwill gesture Wednesday, the rebels released from detention the country’s Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi, the brother of Hadi and a third military commander. The Houthis had held the three for nearly a month. Wednesday evening, airport officials said a plane arrived in Sanaa to take Subaihi, Hadi’s brother and two army commanders, to Riyadh.
The move could reflect an imminent political deal between Hadi and the rebels and their allies.