Middle East

Yemen conflict: Saudis warn border civilians to leave

A man rides a motorcycle past a headquarters of the Houthi group, which was destroyed after an air strike by a Saudi-led coalition, in Saada, Yemen (April 26, 2015) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes against rebels in Yemen for the past six weeks

Saudi-led coalition aircraft have dropped leaflets warning residents in a Yemeni border district to leave, as air strikes against Houthi rebels continue.

Leaflets were dropped in Old Saada in Saada province, the rebels' stronghold.

Houthi rebels have fired shells from Saada into Saudi Arabia in recent days, killing 10 people.

But the NGO Medecins sans Frontieres, which has a team in Saada, warned people would not be able to leave the city quickly because of fuel shortages.

Saudi Arabia says the offensive aims to restore Yemen's exiled president.

The spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Brig Gen Ahmad Assiri, said Yemenis were being advised to stay away from Houthi strongholds for their own safety.

Mr Assiri said the overnight air strikes in Saada province were aimed at those behind the attacks on Saudi territory.

"Our work now is reaching those [Houthis] who planned these attacks and who are hiding in Saada, and the places where the militias are," Gen Assiri told Saudi TV.

The latest strikes hit Houthi command-and-control centres, said the Saudi state news agency SPA. Residents said the tomb of the Houthi movement's founder, Hussein al-Houthi, was also hit.

Earlier, Gen Assiri warned of "harsh" retaliation for a cross-border shelling attack by the rebels on the Saudi city of Najran on Wednesday.

But MSF said it had five staff working in a hospital in Saada, and urged Saudi Arabia not to attack the city.

Llanos Ortiz, an emergency co-ordinator with the NGO in the neighbouring Hajjah province, said: "It is impossible for the entire population of Saada province to leave within hours.

"Many people have no transport or fuel due to the coalition's blockade. Many others have no access to information as the province's phone networks are barely operational.

"If the coalition goes ahead with the threat of massively bombing the province, many people will die under the bombs."

Aid ceasefire

At a meeting in Paris on Friday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said a five-day humanitarian ceasefire would start at 23:00 local time (20:00 GMT) on 12 May.

A letter signed by 22 charities on Thursday called instead for a permanent end to the fighting.

A senior Houthi official, Mohamed al-Bukhaiti, told BBC Arabic on Friday that the ceasefire had not been formally proposed and the Houthis would not respond until a plan was properly laid out.

Air strikes have killed at least 1,200 people, more than half civilians, the UN says.

The crisis began when Shia Houthi rebels from the north, backed by forces loyal to Yemen's former president, took over the capital Sanaa late last year, and have since expanded their control.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has accused Shia rival Iran of arming the Houthis, a charge Iran and the Houthis deny.

The Saudis have been sheltering the internationally recognised Yemeni President Mansour Abdrabbuh Hadi, who fled there in March.