Middle East

Yemen conflict: Houthi rebels 'down Moroccan warplane'

Tribesmen purportedly holding wreckage of Moroccan F-16 missing over Yemen (11 May 2015) Image copyright AL-MASIRAH
Image caption Tribesmen were filmed celebrating beside what appeared to be the wreckage of the F-16

Houthi rebels in Yemen say they have shot down a Moroccan fighter jet that was taking part in a Saudi-led coalition air campaign against them.

Rebel-controlled Al-Masirah TV reported that the F-16 was hit as it flew over Saada province, and broadcast pictures of what it said was the wreckage.

The Moroccan Royal Armed Forces earlier said one of its planes was missing.

If confirmed, it would be the first coalition aircraft to be shot down since air strikes began on 26 March.

The bombardment has been stepped up in recent days ahead of the start of a proposed five-day humanitarian ceasefire.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the conflict in Yemen

Saudi Arabia says its offer of a pause in hostilities from 23:00 (20:00 GMT) on Tuesday to allow aid deliveries is conditional on the Houthis reciprocating.

The rebels have agreed to the truce, but say they will "respond" to any violations.

'Air defence'

The 10-nation coalition launched air strikes against the Houthis and allied army units loyal to Yemen's ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh with the aim of restoring the government of exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There have been more air strikes ahead of the humanitarian pause
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Militias allied to the exiled president have failed to halt the rebel advance

Morocco backed the intervention from the start and put at the coalition's disposal a squadron of F-16s already stationed in the UAE for the campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

On Monday, a Moroccan Royal Armed Forces statement said one of the F-16s had gone missing while flying over Yemen at around 18:00 (15:00 GMT) on Sunday. A second F-16 on the same mission was not able to see whether the pilot ejected, it added.

Later, al-Masirah reported that "air defence of the tribes shot down a warplane over Wadi Nushur", a valley in the Houthis' northern heartland of Saada province.

Image copyright AL-MASIRAH
Image caption The Moroccan flag could be seen on the purported wreckage of the plane

The channel broadcast footage of tribesmen celebrating around what appeared to be the wreckage of a plane, and holding a piece bearing the roundel of the Royal Moroccan Air Force.

Overnight, the Houthis' northern heartland of Saada was bombed for the third consecutive day, after the coalition declared the whole province a military target, the AFP news agency said.

Rebels in the third city of Taiz and the eastern province of Marib were also reportedly attacked.

Along Saudi Arabia's border with the provinces of Saada and Hajjah, Houthi fighters traded heavy artillery and rocket fire with Saudi troops, residents told the Reuters news agency.

There were no immediate reports of casualties. The UN says more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since 19 March.

Analysts say the coalition appears to be trying to inflict as much damage as possible on the Houthis and their allies before the humanitarian ceasefire starts.

On Sunday, a group of 17 international aid agencies warned that five days was not sufficient to restock food, medicine and fuel supplies in a country under blockade.