Impact of Yemen war felt as 'hero' Saudi colonel buried

Colonel Abdullah al-Sahyan (left), who was awarded with a medal of courage by Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour, died in action in the country's southwest (AFP Photo/-)

Riyadh (AFP) - The impact of the war in Yemen was felt keenly in Saudi Arabia Tuesday with the burial of a decorated special forces colonel who became perhaps the highest-profile Saudi casualty.

Colonel Abdullah al-Sahyan died in the desert and scrubland of southwest Yemen on Monday, official media reported.

Two days earlier, Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi had awarded him a medal of courage.

A picture taken that day showed Sahyan in desert fatigues with a floppy hat on his head and a pistol strapped to his thigh as he shook Hadi's hand in the southern city of Aden.

Dozens of Saudi border guards and soldiers have been killed since late March when a Saudi-led coalition began air strikes and later sent in ground troops like Sahyan to support Hadi's government.

The coalition is backing local forces against Iran-supported Huthi rebels and their allies, who have over-run much of Yemen.

Other senior Saudi officers, including at least one general, have been killed but none seemed to have the profile of Sahyan.

With media access to the war zone tightly controlled, the kingdom has been spared gruesome images of its dead or maimed.

Readers of mainstream Saudi newspapers and viewers of state television have also not been exposed to the frequent criticisms raised by foreign rights groups over civilian casualties in Yemen.

Sahyan had been previously photographed by journalists on duty in Yemen, and his story was the lead item on Tuesday on Saudi news channel Al-Ekhbariya.

The Arab News hailed as "heroes" Sahyan and United Arab Emirates officer Sultan al-Kitbi who died with him.

They were killed at dawn on Monday while "carrying out their duties in supervising operations to liberate Taez" province, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

A Yemeni officer told AFP that Sahyan and Kitbi were killed when rebels fired a rocket at a coastal road in the strategic province, which overlooks the Bab al-Mandab Strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The rebels claimed in a statement on their website that they fired a Tochka missile at a command centre in the Bab al-Mandab area.

A purported WhatsApp message sent by Sahyan was widely circulated on Twitter and by Saudi newspapers on Monday.

"If we live may we live a proud life, if we die it would be the most proud death and may Allah accept us as martyrs," it said.

Major Saudi newspapers on Tuesday showed photographs of Sahyan's coffin being unloaded by fellow soldiers, an image rarely seen during this war.

The Okaz daily showed his two sons, one of them wiping a tear from his left eye, as the body arrived.

Local media said Sahyan was buried in the northwestern region of Jawf.

He died the day before a ceasefire began on Tuesday in Yemen to coincide with peace talks that started in Switzerland.

In Yemen itself, since March more than 5,800 people have been killed -- about half of them civilians, according to the United Nations.