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Saudi Arabia, Yemen rebels trade charges of truce breaches

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Iranian-backed Shiite rebels on Thursday traded charges of violating a humanitarian cease-fire, as a helicopter gunship belonging to the Saudi-led coalition struck a truck in northern Yemen, killing nine people.

The attack was the latest in a series of violent incidents marring the cease-fire and came as the rivalry over Yemen between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite, non-Arab Iran escalated, with a senior Iranian official directing unusually harsh comments at Riyadh.

The Saudi embassy in Washington said in a statement that the rebels, known as Houthis, have “deliberately” breached the five-day truce, citing seven separate incidents in which forces guarding its border came under attack by rebels using mortars, rockets and sniper fire.

The Saudi statement, dated Wednesday but made available Thursday, also cited five separate incidents in which the rebels and their allies broke the cease-fire by targeting civilians or seeking to reinforce their fighting positions.

In a letter to the new U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania, a senior official from Ansar Allah, the Houthis’ political arm, said the coalition violated the cease-fire in roughly the same provinces cited in the Saudi complaint — Aden, Shabwa, Taiz, al-Dhale — as well as by staging airstrikes.

“Everyone carries a large responsibility to pressure the other party and to force it to commit to the respect of the truce,” said the statement, signed by Mahdi al-Mashat, Ansar Allah’s chief negotiator.

The attack by the coalition helicopter came on the second full day of the truce that went into effect nearly seven weeks after the coalition began airstrikes against the Shiite rebels and their allies — security and military forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemeni security and military officials said the attack on the truck, which was suspected of carrying rebel weapons, took place in the northern Saada province, a stronghold of the rebels and the birthplace of their political movement.

The Houthis last year captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north before they marched southward.

Also on Thursday, coalition warplanes flew over Sanaa, Saada and the port cities of Aden and Hodeida in what appeared to be reconnaissance flights, said the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Saudi Arabia and its mostly Sunni Arab partners began the air campaign on March 26 to try to roll back the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The coalition hopes to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s internationally recognized leader, who fled the country in March.

The conflict in Yemen is part of a larger one pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, whose influence has spread across the Arab world since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ousted its archenemy, Saddam Hussein. Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad against a Sunni-led insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and Tehran exerts significant influence in Iraq and Lebanon.

During a visit to Damascus Thursday, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Iranian parliamentary national security and foreign policy committees, raised a picture of a child allegedly killed in Yemen by airstrikes and said: “I am talking to you, Salman,” referring to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. “What is the guilt of this child to be burned by your fire?”

Addressing a news conference in the Syrian capital, he said Saudi Arabia has become the “axis of aggression and criminality against the Islamic ummah (nation) and the Arab world.”

He spoke as an aid ship escorted by Iranian warships made its way to blockaded Yemen, setting up a possible confrontation at sea. The Saudi-led coalition has vowed to prevent the ship from reaching Yemen, while a senior Iranian military official warned this week that any such action would “spark a fire” in the region.

“The self-restraint of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not limitless,” Iranian Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff, told Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam state TV on Wednesday.

Iran says the ship, which departed on Monday, is carrying food, medicine, tents and blankets, as well as reporters, rescue workers and peace activists. It is expected to arrive in the rebel-held port of Hodeida next week — likely after the five-day cease-fire expires.

Boroujerdi said in Damascus the ship will arrive in Hodeida in coordination with the U.N., but he didn’t give a date.

Saudi Arabia says Iran arms the rebels. Iran supports the Houthis, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them.

Yemen’s conflict has killed more than 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19, according to the U.N. The country of some 25 million people has endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of the Saudi-led blockade.

The cease-fire is meant to help ease the suffering of civilians in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

The new U.N. envoy left Yemen on Thursday, one day after meeting with leaders of Saleh’s party. Ahmed has said he intends to meet separately with other political leaders.

“I will do everything I can to bring all Yemenis to the negotiating table at the earliest time possible,” he told reporters before departing.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meanwhile spoke by phone Thursday with Yemen’s vice president and soon will convene a “meeting of Yemeni parties in a third country,” Ban’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters. He did not say where or when the meeting would take place.

Yemeni politicians who met with Ahmed in Sanaa said Geneva was floated as a likely venue for the talks, but that the Houthis were insisting instead on neighboring Oman, a Gulf Arab nation that has traditionally enjoyed good relations with Iran.

The politicians spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to disclose the contents of their talks with the U.N. envoy.

Dujarric said the U.N. and humanitarian partners have been using the pause so far to resupply prepositioned stocks and deliver aid.

“The pause, from what we have seen, has not been fully implemented, but there are enough lulls for us to preposition, to initiate the distribution of aid,” Dujarric said. “We are able to conduct some work, even with the violations we have seen.”

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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.

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