Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition pounded weapons depots on the edge of Yemen’s capital Monday, one day before a humanitarian cease-fire is due to start and a U.N. envoy arrives on his first visit to try to end the war.
The latest airstrikes followed the release by the Shiite rebels of video and photos of the purported wreck of a Moroccan F-16 that they claim to have shot down over the northern province of Saada near the Saudi border.
The Moroccan military said the plane had disappeared Sunday evening. An online news site with close ties to Morocco’s royal palace and security and intelligence services said the aircraft was one of two that flew from a base in the United Arab Emirates on a reconnaissance mission over the Yemeni side of the border with Saudi Arabia.
The French-language site, Le360, said rebel anti-aircraft batteries stationed on mountains opened fire on the two aircraft as they flew at low altitude.
“The Moroccan fighter jets maneuvered, gained altitude, attempted to escape the danger, but it was too late. One of the craft was hit and went into a spin,” Le360 reported.
Yemeni security officials said Monday’s coalition airstrikes targeted arms and ammunition depots on Noqom mountain, on Sanaa’s northeastern edge. The bombardment shook the entire city, collapsing some homes and shattering windows. They also caused shells to explode from the arms depots, and the munitions hit residential areas and started fires. There was no immediate word on civilian casualties.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the explosions were the strongest in Sanaa since the air campaign began March 26 against the rebels, known as the Houthis, and their allies in the army and security forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition of Arab countries began the airstrikes to break the advance of the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, who overran the capital of Sanaa and much of northern Yemen late last year and have been on the offensive in the south. The Saudis and their allies are seeking the restoration of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March in the face of the Houthis’ advance.
The security officials said Monday they also saw airstrikes in Saada, the birthplace and stronghold of the Houthi movement, as well as the provinces of Aden, Shabwa, Taiz and al-Dhaleh — areas where forces and militias loyal to Hadi are battling the Houthis and their allies.
The officials said the Houthis were recruiting boys as young as 15 in Sanaa to fight in Saada against Sunni tribesmen trying to enter the province that sits on the Saudi border.
The Saudi-owned Al-Hadath news channel broadcast live video of tanks and armored personnel carriers loaded onto giant trucks, saying they were part of a “strike force” deploying to the kingdom’s border with Yemen. There have been no signs to suggest that a ground offensive was imminent, although the coalition has not ruled one out.
On Friday, the coalition declared that Saada province would be considered a military target because the Houthi rebels had fired rockets over the border into Saudi territory, killing at least three people.
Photos on social media networks showed armed tribesmen and children posing next to what was said to be the wreckage of the downed aircraft that bore Morocco’s red and green national colors. A corpse also was visible.
A video on social media showed a reporter from the rebels’ TV station al-Maseera visiting the purported crash site in northern Saada province, and tribesmen standing with parts of the jet’s fuselage or triumphantly raising their fists in the air.
“This plane was downed by God,” shouted one tribesman. Al-Maseera first reported that the aircraft was brought down in Saada.
The rebels and their allies routinely fire anti-aircraft rounds at warplanes launching airstrikes against them.
Morocco has six F-16 jets stationed in the United Arab Emirates taking part in the coalition, which includes a group of other Sunni Arab countries. The West says regional Shiite power Iran backs the Houthis militarily, something both Tehran and the rebels deny.
If confirmed, the Moroccan F-16 would be the second warplane to go down in the conflict. During the campaign’s early days, a fighter jet crashed in the Arabian Sea off Yemen’s southern coast, but the pilot and co-pilot were picked up by a nearby navy vessel. Technical problems were said to have caused that crash.
The cease-fire, scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. (2000 GMT, 4 p.m. EDT) Tuesday, would help ease the suffering of civilians in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.
The conflict has killed over 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19, according to the U.N., and the country of 25 million has endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of a Saudi-led naval, air and land blockade.
The new U.N. envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is scheduled to fly into Sanaa on Tuesday ahead of the humanitarian truce. He hopes to meet with various parties, including the Houthis, said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced that newly installed King Salman will not be attending a summit of U.S. and allied Arab leaders at Camp David outside Washington. The ostensible reason was because Thursday’s summit coincides with the humanitarian cease-fire in Yemen.
Instead, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also interior minister, will lead the Saudi delegation and the king’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is defense minister, will also attend.
President Barack Obama had planned to meet Salman a day before the gathering of leaders at the presidential retreat but the White House did not take the king’s decision to skip the summit as a sign of any substantial disagreement with the U.S.
Human Rights Watch said the blockade of Yemen is preventing fuel from reaching the Yemeni people who need it, contending the action violated the “laws of war.”
Yemen, it said, urgently needs to power generators for hospitals overwhelmed with wounded and to pump drinking water. The coalition, it added, must urgently “implement measures for the rapid processing of oil tankers to allow the safe, secure and speedy distribution of fuel supplies to the civilian population.”
All sides in the conflict have warned they will resume hostilities if the cease-fire is violated.
In what is likely to produce a confrontation with the Sunni coalition, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said a cargo ship with 2,500 tons of food, medicine, tents and blankets has set sail for Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeida. The ship was also carrying several journalists, rescue workers, physicians and “anti-war activists,” it said.
In Yemen’s southern port of Mukalla on the Arabian Sea, rockets believed to have been fired by U.S. drones hit al-Qaida militants based in the city’s presidential residence, according to the Yemeni security officials. They had no word on casualties. The compound was recently taken over by al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, viewed by Washington as the terror group’s most dangerous affiliate.