Saudi Arabia and a coalition of regional allies have launched a military operation in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who deposed the US-backed Yemeni president last month.
Adel al-Jubair, Saudi ambassador to the US, said on Wednesday that a coalition consisting of 10 countries, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), had begun airstrikes at 7pm Eastern time.
“The operation is to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country,” Jubair told reporters in Washington.
At least 17 civilians were killed in Sanaa during the overnight offensive, civil defence sources told AFP news agency.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV channel reported, citing Saudi sources, that 100 Saudi warplanes were involved in the attacks. The United Arab Emirates were said to participate with 30 jets, Bahrain with eight, Morocco and Jordan both with six. Sudan reportedly offered three war planes to assist the operation.
An Egyptian official told AFP news agency that Egypt would participate in the Yemen offensive. Saudi Arabia said that another four Muslim countries including Pakistan wanted to participate in the Gulf-led military coalition.
Together with Jordan, Morocco and Sudan, they have “expressed desire to participate in the operation” against the rebels, which the kingdom dubbed “Firmness Storm”, Saudi SPA state news agency said.
Saudi Arabia and four other Gulf states, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, announced earlier a decision to “answer the call of President Hadi to protect Yemen and his people from the aggression of the Houthi militia”.
Military sources said rebel positions were hit at various locations in Sanaa, including at al-Daylami airbase and the adjacent international airport in north Sanaa, as well as the presidential complex seized by the rebels in January.
Huge explosions were heard in Sanaa as strikes hit the airbase at Sanaa airport and other locations in the capital, an AFP correspondent reported.
In the south, residents reported hearing large blasts at Al-Anad main airbase, north of Aden, which was seized by anti-government forces on Wednesday.
At least 10 people are reported to have been killed. Three Houthi military commanders, Abdel Khaleq Badereddine Al-Houthi, Yousef Al-Madani and Yousef Al-Fishi have been reportedly killed in the attacks.
The Houthis confirmed in a statement to reporters that Saudi jets hit a military base in Sanaa, known as al-Duleimi. They said they fired anti-aircraft missiles in response.
Mohamed Al-Bokhaiti, a member of the Houthi political office, called the military action as a declaration of war on Yemen.
Hakim Al Masmari, Yemen Post editor, said that “people are very terrified”.
“It’s [bombing] not in any particular location in Sanaa, it’s throughout the capital,” he said.
Separately, a statement issued in Riyadh in the name of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – the GCC countries without Yemen’s neighbour Oman – said they had been asked for help by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s embattled government.
In a statement from the state news agency Egypt, too, announced political and military support. “There is coordination ongoing now with Saudi Arabia and the brotherly gulf countries about preparations to participate with an Egyptian air and naval forces and ground troops if necessary,” the statement said.
Al-Jubair said that for the moment the action was confined to airstrikes on various targets around Yemen, but that other military assets were being mobilised and that the coalition “would do whatever it takes”.
The ambassador said he would not go into detail about the support being provided by Saudi Arabia’s allies, but added “we consulted very closely with many of our allies and in particular with the United States”.
“President Obama has authorised the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
“While US forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support.”
The Saudi ambassador said that the Houthis controlled ballistic and heavy weaponry, and could take control of the country’s air force.
Yemen has been gripped by growing turmoil since Shia Houthi rebels launched a power takeover in the Yemeni capital last month.
Houthis have advanced to the southern port city of Aden, where Hadi was based after fleeing from house arrest in Sanaa.
They control much of the north, including Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahij, both just to the north of Aden.
In fighting in Lahij, they captured Hadi’s defence minister, Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and then swept into the nearby al-Annad base, which the US military had left.
The strife has raised fears Yemen could be torn apart by a proxy war between Shia Iran, accused of backing the rebels – and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which supports Hadi.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Doha, said Iran was very powerful in the region.
“They are major players in the region, and have been since the Iraq war. They will use their influence as a way to be taken more seriously by the US.
“I think the Gulf was taken by the surprise. They were distracted by the events in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Riad Kahwaji, a political analyst based in Dubai, told Al Jazeera that “the Houthis misunderstood the signals from the rest of the GCC and continued to take more territory”.
“Saudi has three regional powers on their side. It is just the start of a combined military operation. I expect a land invasion in the coming days,” Kahwaji added.
“They will also attempt to block any arms coming in from Iran. … The people will finally see that that Arab giant (Saudi Arabia) has finally awakened.” Al Jazeera