Mar 28, 3:52 PM EDT

Yemen's president calls Shiite rebels 'puppets of Iran'


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AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) -- Yemen's embattled president on Saturday called Shiite rebels who forced him to flee the country "puppets of Iran," directly blaming the Islamic Republic for the chaos there and demanding airstrikes against rebel positions continue until they surrender.

Egypt's president supported the creation a regional Arab military force and a Gulf diplomat warned that Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen could go on for months, raising the specter of a regional conflict pitting Sunni Arab nations against Shiite power Iran.

The comments by Arab leaders including Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled his country only days earlier, came at an Arab summit largely focusing on the chaos there caused by the advance of the rebels, known as Houthis.

Leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait obliquely referenced Iran earlier at the summit held in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. They blamed the Persian country for meddling in the affairs of Arab nations, with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi saying, without mentioning Iran by name, that it was "spreading its ailment in the body."

"This (Arab) nation, in its darkest hour, had never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it's facing now," el-Sissi said. "This threatens our national security and (we) cannot ignore its consequences for the Arab identity."

Hadi directly challenged Iran in his remarks and called for his supporters to rise up in peaceful protest against the Houthis.

"I say to the puppets of Iran, its toys and those who support it, you have destroyed Yemen with your political adolescence and by manufacturing domestic and regional crises," Hadi said.

Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Officials in Iran had no immediate comment on Hadi's remarks.

Meanwhile, a news report on the Houthi-affiliated Al-Masirah television station referred to Hadi as a "puppet" of Saudi Arabia.

Ali al-Emad, a senior official of the Houthi movement's political arm, Ansar Allah, told the station that nothing said at the summit came as a surprise. Saudi Arabia, he claimed, was taking charge of the Yemen issue, deciding alone what needed to be done.

"We knew from day one that we are facing regimes that are allies, agents or toys of foreign powers," he said. "Yemen will prove to the world that the weak will triumph at the end."

Hadi also said airstrikes launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Houthis must not stop before the rebels surrender and return medium and heavy weapons they looted from army depots across much of the country. Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Salman, earlier pledged that the military campaign in Yemen would not stop until security and stability are restored.

Saudi warplanes carried out dozens of raids on military sites across the country overnight and into Saturday morning, striking targets in and around Sanaa, Marib, Dhamar, Lahj and other areas, security officials said.

Yemeni military officials said an explosion rocked the Jabal al-Hadid military camp in Aden that houses a weapons depot and had been taken by forces loyal to Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, killing and wounding several people. From the city center, explosions and smoke could be seen rising from the site, and security officials said nine people were killed in the strike, while 150 were injured.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. Security officials speaking anonymously for the same reasons said that three people were killed in different areas of Aden on Saturday.

The Houthi-affiliated Al-Masirah television station said "Saudi and American aggression" had targeted the gas company in Saada province, causing a raging fire, and two other areas. Saada, north of Sanaa, is the birthplace of the Houthi movement and is a rebel stronghold.

It played footage of guerrillas and soldiers firing assault rifles and heavy weapons to the tune of martial music throughout the day. Voices chanted Houthi slogans cursing America and Israel as images of anti-government demonstrations were broadcast, occasionally showing Hadi shaking the hand of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The station's news broadcasts showed charred, mangled bodies pulled from the rubble of buildings hit by airstrikes, and at one point showed clips of the leader of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, condemning the Saudi-led intervention.

Hadi fled Yemen earlier this week, making his way to Saudi Arabia after leaving the southern coastal city of Aden in the face of a push into southern Yemen by the Houthis and their allies, including security forces loyal to Saleh.

At the summit, El-Sissi also endorsed a resolution adopted by Arab foreign ministers on Thursday for the creation of an Arab military force, saying the Arab world was currently facing unprecedented threats. He also described the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen as "inevitable."

Already, some backers of Iran have begun to step away from supporting it over Yemen. On Saturday, the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, issued a statement offering support for Hadi, as opposed to the rebels.

A Gulf diplomatic official, meanwhile, said that the airstrikes campaign was planned to last for one month, but that coalition nations were prepared for the probability of going on for up to six months.

"Ultimately the whole idea is to achieve the political objective, which is the return of legitimacy of Yemen and a return to the political process," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists by name.

The official also claimed that around 5,000 Iranian, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militiamen were on the ground in Yemen supporting the Houthis. They are trainers, group leaders and instructors, he added. His claim could not be independently corroborated.

Around six weeks ago, he said, satellite imagery from Yemen showed the repositioning of Scud missiles toward Saudi Arabia. Airstrikes have so far destroyed 21 Scud missiles, he said.

Later in the day, a spokesman for the coalition air campaign said that several groups of Houthis were moving toward the Saudi border, but that the coalition would never allow them to cross.

"We shall target any kind of grouping here. We will not allow the Houthi militias to bring their forces near the southern borders of Saudi Arabia," Ahmed Asiri told reporters in Riyadh.

The Saudi Press Agency also reported Saturday that its navy had evacuated 86 diplomats and others from Aden on Wednesday. It did not identify the nationalities of all those moved to safety, though it said diplomats from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar were on hand Saturday when those evacuated arrived at a Jiddah naval base.

Pakistan also announced Saturday it had two planes standing by to evacuate its citizens. Sanaa airport officials said five aircraft evacuated U.N. personnel for the second day in a row, flying them to Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Late in the evening, Saleh gave an address broadcast on Yemen Today television, blaming the country's problems since 2011 on Hadi, urging the coalition to stop their airstrikes, and calling for new elections in which he promised "neither me nor my relatives will run."

"The solution to the problem is peaceful, you cannot resolve it with strikes," said Saleh, who ruled Yemen for close to 40 years and was grooming his son, army officer Ahmed, to succeed him.

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Al-Haj reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Sarah El Deeb and Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.

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