SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi-led airstrikes targeted Iran-backed rebels and their allies in Yemen on Wednesday, hours after Riyadh declared an end to a nearly monthlong air campaign that has claimed hundreds of lives but left the Shiite rebels in control of the capital and much of the country’s north.
The continuing 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.
The air raids hit rebel positions in the southern port of Aden and central city of Taiz as ground fighting between the rebels and supporters of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi continued in both areas, Yemeni officials said.
The capital, Sanaa, was calm however, as residents experienced their quietest night in almost four weeks and did not wake up to new scenes of devastation.
The strikes in Taiz hit the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, as they gathered at a military headquarters they control near the old airport to the city’s southeast, the officials said. Also targeted was the southern port city of Aden, where aircraft blasted rebel forces in outlying districts.
Street fighting continued in both cities, especially Taiz, where the officials said pro-government forces control most of the city but have been in heavy combat with the rebels, leaving dozens killed on both sides. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The Houthis have 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 has provided political and humanitarian support to the Houthis, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them. On Wednesday Iran welcomed the Saudi decision to halt the operation codenamed “Decisive Storm” and launch a new one titled “Renewal of Hope.”
“We believe this was a positive step,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham, adding that “political cooperation” by all parties is needed to resolve the Yemen crisis.
The U.S.-backed air 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.
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, and al-Qaida’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,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
“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,” she said.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia declared “Decisive Storm” over and announced the start of a more limited military campaign aimed at preventing the rebels from operating.
Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh, coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said the 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 said the goals of the new operation are to prevent Houthi rebels from “targeting civilians or changing realities on the ground.”
In an apparent goodwill 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.
Pakistan, a close Saudi ally which did not join the coalition but said it supported the campaign, welcomed the end of the airstrikes and expressed hope this would “pave the way for political solution of the crisis in Yemen.”
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.
Yemeni security officials meanwhile said a suspected U.S. drone strike killed seven al-Qaida fighters in the country’s east on Wednesday.
They said the militants were travelling in a car in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, where al-Qaida has recently made advances and struck deals with local tribesmen. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Yemen’s chaos has forced the U.S. to scale back drone strikes on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the local affiliate is known. AQAP has carried out a number of failed attacks on the U.S. and claimed the deadly attack on a French satirical magazine earlier this year. It has long been seen as the global network’s most potent local affiliate.
Rohan reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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