500 Yemen rebels dead on border since air war began: Saudi

Jamal al-Jabiri
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Saudi army tanks are seen deployed near the border with Yemen, near Jizan, Saudi Arabia, on April 9, 2015

Saudi army tanks are seen deployed near the border with Yemen, near Jizan, Saudi Arabia, on April 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

Sanaa (AFP) - Saudi Arabia said Saturday at least 500 Shiite insurgents have been killed in border clashes since the coalition it heads launched air strikes against the Huthi rebels in war-battered Yemen.

A defence ministry statement in Riyadh also said three soldiers were killed in a mortar attack on the kingdom's border with Yemen on Friday.

The statement gave the first reported death toll for border clashes since the coalition launched air strikes against Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen last month.

Earlier, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri told journalists at his daily briefing in Riyadh there had been 1,200 coalition air strikes between March 26 and midday Saturday.

He said the raids had neutralised the air and ballistic capabilities of the rebels and their allies, and "will continue".

Assiri also told reporters: "At the appropriate time, we will take action on the ground."

Saudi state news agency SPA cited the defence ministry as saying the three Saudi soldiers died on Friday and two were wounded when mortar rounds hit their border observation post in Najran province.

Last week, three Saudi border guards were killed in an attack by the Huthis, who control parts of northern Yemen along the frontier.

With the air campaign and fighting on the ground in Yemen showing no sign of easing, the Red Cross on Saturday delivered a second planeload of aid to Sanaa in as many days.

The aid is urgently needed for hundreds wounded in fighting between pro-government forces and the Huthi rebels, who are allies of troops loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

- More aid arrives -

Coalition warplanes on Saturday launched several raids in and around Sanaa, with at least 11 around Sanhan, Saleh's hometown.

A raid on military targets in Amran province north of Sanaa killed eight rebels, medics said on the 18th day of the air campaign.

Fighting in and around the southern city of Aden since late Friday between rebels and pro-government forces has killed 42 people including three civilians, medics and military sources said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said its aircraft landed in Sanaa with medical equipment after weeks of intense fighting across the country.

"The new cargo is 35.6 tonnes, of which 32 tonnes is medical aid and the rest water purifying equipment, electric power generators and tents," ICRC spokeswoman Marie Claire Feghali said.

The Red Cross and the UN also sent planes to Sanaa on Friday, each with 16 tonnes of medicine and equipment, the first aid delivery to the capital since the air campaign began.

Russia's news website Vesti.ru reported that two Russian planes were unable to land in Sanaa on Saturday to evacuate hundreds of civilians after being denied coalition permission to enter Yemeni airspace.

More than two weeks of heavy bombardment against opponents of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and fighting between rival militias has prompted a UN call for a freeze in the violence.

UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, said an "immediate humanitarian pause in this conflict" was desperately needed to allow aid deliveries.

- Rebel convoy ambushed -

The World Health Organization says nearly 650 people have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded in the recent escalation.

Yemen's second city Aden has seen some of the toughest fighting.

On Saturday, pro-Hadi forces ambushed rebels aboard a 30-vehicle convoy which tried to enter a neighbourhood where oil refineries are located, Hadi loyalists said.

Thirteen rebels and four loyalist forces were killed, they added.

Saturday's air raids also destroyed a police station near Sanhan where rebels stockpiled weapons, and they also targeted a special forces camp loyal to Saleh in the central province of Baida, witnesses said.

Elsewhere, Sunni tribesmen who support Hadi ambushed and killed 18 rebels on the road between Taez and Lahj as they headed for Aden, military sources said.

The fighting has been so fierce in south Yemen that hundreds of civilians have fled across the Gulf of Aden.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR says at least 900 people, most of them Somalis, but also including Yemenis, have arrived in the Horn of Africa in the past 10 days.

Yemen, strategically located near key shipping routes, was plunged into chaos last year when the Huthis seized Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee to Aden and then Riyadh.

SPA said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived on Saturday in Riyadh.

A diplomatic source said he will discuss the Yemen crisis in talks on Sunday and also voice support for Hadi.