SHARM EL SHEIKH/ADEN/CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told an Arab League summit on Saturday that Cairo backed calls for a unified Arab force to confront regional security threats.
Sisi also said Egypt’s participation in a military campaign against Shi’ite Houthi militias in Yemen, which has beenled by Saudi Arabia, aimed to ‘preserve Yemen’s unity and the peace of its territories.’ Saudi-led air forces struck a convoy of Yemeni Houthi fighters advancing on Aden from the east on Saturday, residents said, and the Saudi navy evacuated diplomats from the southern port city.
The Iranian-allied Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters, seeking to overthrow the Western- and Saudi-allied President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, have continued to make gains since the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against them early on Thursday. Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi arrived in Egypt on Friday for the 26th Arab League summit which will focus on the Saudi-led military campaign against his Houthi militia opponents.
Hadi left his refuge in Aden for Saudi Arabia on Thursday, as Houthi fighters battled with his forces on the outskirts of the southern port city. Yemen’s Houthi rebels made broad gains in the country’s south and east on Friday despite a second day of Saudi-led air strikes meant to check the Iranian-backed militia’s efforts to overthrow Hadi.
Muslim Houthi fighters and allied army units gained their first foothold on Yemen’s Arabian Sea coast by seizing the port of Shaqra 100km (60 miles) east of Aden, residents told Reuters. The advances threaten Hadi’s last refuge in Yemen and potentially undermine the air campaign to support him.
The losses came as the spokesman for the Saudi-led operation, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, told a press conference in Riyadh that defending the Aden government was the campaign’s ‘main objective.’ Warplanes targeted Houthi forces controlling Yemen’s capital Sanaa and their northern heartland on Friday. Asseri said that planes from the United Arab Emirates had carried out their first strikes in the past 24 hours. In a boost for Saudi Arabia, Morocco said it would join the rapidly assembled Sunni Muslim coalition against the Houthis. Pakistan, named by Saudi Arabia as a partner, said it had made no decision on whether to contribute.
‘Each of these countries would bring a different capability,’ said Aaron Reese, the deputy research director at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. ‘The Jordanians are well known for their special forces capability - the Egyptians of course have the most manpower and bases close to Libya.’
Before Egyptian air strikes in February targeting the Islamic State group (IS) in Libya, the United Arab Emirates, which shares Cairo’s antipathy towards Islamists, had reportedly used Egyptian bases to launch its own air strikes there. Egypt had sought UN backing for intervention in Libya, dismissing attempted peace talks between the rival governments in its violence-plagued North African neighbour as ineffective.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit is being held under tight security, with extra police and army on the streets of what is normally a tourist resort and with military aircraft patrolling its skies. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as in every Arab summit, also figures on the agenda, with the IS penetration in Iraq, Syria and Libya another high priority.
    Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s navy evacuated dozens of diplomats from Yemen and the United Nations pulled out international staff on Saturday after a third night of Saudi-led air strikes trying to stem advances by Iranian-allied Houthi fighters.
Residents reported heavy clashes between the Houthis and mainly Sunni tribal fighters in the south of the country, while the Saudi-led air campaign sought to stall a fresh offensive by the Shi’ite Muslim group on Aden from the east.
Riyadh’s intervention, a surprise move from a conservative monarchy better known for flexing its muscle in oil markets than through military might, is planned to last a month but could extend for five or six, a Gulf diplomatic source said.
Dozens of diplomats were shipped out of Aden to the Red Sea port of Jeddah, Saudi television said, escaping the city where President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had taken refuge until Thursday, when he left for Egypt to shore up Arab support for his crumbling authority.
The director general of Yemen’s Health Ministry, al-Khadher Laswar, said more than 62 people had been killed and 452 wounded in the city since Wednesday. Explosions at the city’s largest ammunition depot on Saturday left at least nine badly wounded, he said. Moreover, an Arab alliance attacking Shi’ite Muslim Houthi forces in Yemen initially plans a month-long campaign, but the operation could last five or six months, a Gulf diplomatic official said on Saturday.
The official, from a country that belongs to the alliance, said Shi’ite Iran, the Houthis’ main foreign ally, was likely to retaliate indirectly, by encouraging pro-Iranian Shi’iteactivists to carry out armed attacks in Bahrain, Lebanon and eastern Saudi Arabia. Iran, in a tug-of-war with Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia for influence across the Middle East, has denied supporting the Houthis militarily, and has criticised the Gulf Arabs for their military action.
Since the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against them early on Thursday, the Houthis, seeking to overthrow the Western- and Saudi-allied President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, have continued to make gains. But the official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the attacks would go on until Yemen was able to resume a U.N.-backed political transition interrupted by the Houthis’ seizure of Sanaa in September.
He said Gulf Arab concern over the Houthis’ influence in Yemen had been heightened in January by satellite imagery showing Houthi forces repositioning long-range Scudmissiles in northern districts near the Saudi border. The Scuds, with a range of between 250 km (150 miles) and 650 km (400 miles), were aimed northwards at Saudi territory.
He said Yemen’s military had about 300 Scuds, the bulk of which were believed to be in the hands of the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and that the campaign so far had destroyed 21 of them.
Yemen, by far the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula, has struggled to regain stability since mass protests in 2011 that eventually unseated Saleh after 33 years in power. Hadi led a national dialogue that was discussing a new constitution when the Houthis took the capital and pushed him aside. The Gulf diplomatic official said the coalition would not accept that the Houthi ‘coup’ had succeeded, and wanted Yemenis to push for a resumption of the U.N.-backed process.
He said it could take five or six months for the campaign’s aims to be realised, but there was room for everyone, including Houthis, in that process of forging a new constitution. The official said Houthi forces were being trained and supported on the ground by about 5,000 experts from Iran and its regional allies, the Hezbollah group in Lebanon and Iraqi Shi’ite militias.
In the meanwhile, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi called the Shi’ite Houthi militia ‘Iran’s puppet’ at an Arab League summit inEgypt on Saturday. ‘I tell Iran’s puppet, ‘You are the one that destroyed Yemen with your political immaturity’,’ Hadi said in Sharm el-Sheikh. Tehran denies providing money and training to the Shi’ite Houthi fighters, as alleged by some Western and Yemeni officials.