Friday 8 May 2015 09.42 EDT Last modified on Friday 8 May 2015 10.21 EDT
Saudi Arabia intensified its air strikes against the main Shia rebel stronghold in Yemen, with warplanes carrying out more than 50 raids overnight and early on Friday.
The air strikes throw into question a proposed five-day ceasefire announced on Thursday by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, so that humanitarian aid can reach millions of civilians caught up in the conflict – which has killed more than 1,400 people since the Saudi-led campaign started on 26 March.
The Saudi-led military coalition said the latest air strikes in the northern province of Saada — the stronghold of rebels, known as Houthis — were in response to cross-border attacks by the rebels targeting Saudi Arabian cities near the frontier.
Saudi air strikes have been pummelling Saada for more than a month since the start of a campaign against the rebels, who are allied with forces loyal to the ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
On Friday, Saudi Press Agency reported that warplanes destroyed a landmine factory, a telecommunications complex and command centres in Saada. Yemeni officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in addition to the more than 50 air strikes, helicopters dropped leaflets calling on residents to stay away from rebel positions and houses.
The Houthis and Saleh’s forces overran the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, last September and are currently engaged in an offensive in southern Yemen and Aden — the south’s main city. The offensive forced the internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee the country in late March and seek exile in Saudi Arabia.
With air strikes destroying large stockpiles of Houthi weaponry, the rebels responded by carrying out cross-border attacks targeting Saudi cities near the Yemeni frontier. On Tuesday, Houthis fired rockets and mortars into the kingdom, killing at least three people.
The coalition spokesman, the Saudi army’s Brig Gen Ahmed Asiri, vowed a “harsh response” to the attacks and said the Houthis “made a mistake by targeting Saudi cities”.
Also on Friday, up to 6,000 protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers in the Iranian capital, Tehran, to denounce the Saudi-led strikes. The crowd chanted “death to America” and “death to the Saud family,” which rules Saudi Arabia.
Iran has backed the Houthis, though both the Shia powerhouse and the rebels deny the support includes military equipment and weapons.
The intensified air strikes cast a shadow over a ceasefire announced in the Saudi capital Riyadh by Kerry and the Saudi foreign minister. The reprieve is dependent on whether the Houthis and their allies also agree to halt fighting.
Hamed al-Bokheiti, a spokesman for the Houthi movement in Sana’a, was dismissive of the ceasefire. “What ceasefire are we talking about? Air strikes are continuing unabated,” he said by phone.