Saudis begin airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen

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WASHINGTON — The Saudi ambassador to the United States says his country has begun airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who drove out the U.S.-backed Yemeni president.

Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir spoke from the Saudi embassy in Washington; he said the operations began at 7 p.m. Eastern time.

He says the Houthis, widely believed to be backed by Iran, “have always chosen the path of violence.” He declined to say whether the Saudi campaign involved U.S. intelligence assistance.

Al-Jubeir made the announcement at a rare news conference by the Sunni kingdom. Offensive military action by Saudi Arabia is also a rarity, although Saudi Arabia is a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria.

He says the Saudis “will do anything necessary” to protect the people of Yemen and “the legitimate government of Yemen” from Iran-backed Shiite rebels.

Other nations may join in the offensive. In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain said they would answer a request from Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

As far as the United States’ involvement, an inter-agency U.S. coordination team is in Saudi Arabia. “We can help with logistics and intelligence and things like that, but there will be no military intervention by the U.S.,” a senior administration official said.

Al-Jubeir said the United States is not involved in the airstrikes against the Houthis, who are Shiites in a majority Sunni nation.

Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi abandoned the country on a boat after weeks of rebel airstrikes. His departure after just three years illustrated how one of the most important American counterterrorism efforts has disintegrated.

Now, U.S. officials acknowledge their efforts against Yemen’s dangerous al-Qaida affiliate are seriously hampered, with the American embassy closed and the last U.S. troops evacuated from the country over the weekend.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered the terror group most dangerous to the U.S. because it successfully placed three bombs on U.S.-bound airlines, although none exploded. The chaos in Yemen will give the group breathing space, American officials acknowledge.

But the U.S. had made no move to protect the Hadi government as the Houthis advanced, and American officials gave no indication Wednesday that their stance of neutrality had changed.

As late as Monday, officials insisted the U.S. was still working with Hadi’s government, despite the fact that the president had been forced out of the capital and the parliament dissolved.

“There continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the United States and the national security infrastructure of the Hadi government,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.