Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's humanitarian cease-fire came under significant strain in its first 24 hours Wednesday, disrupted by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, fighting between rival sides in a strategic province and shelling by coalition warships west of the port city of Aden.
The airstrike in Abyan province was in response to an attempt by the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, to send a military convoy to support their forces in Aden, according to Yemeni security officials. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage from the airstrike.
The heaviest violence on the ground was in the southwestern province of Taiz, where the Iranian-backed rebels and their allies — forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh — have for weeks been fighting forces loyal to the nation's internationally recognized president.
Yemeni officials said the Houthis shelled residential areas in Taiz, a claim supported by an Amnesty International report. The London-based rights group said Wednesday that evidence suggested the Houthis have carried out indiscriminate mortar attacks on civilians and repeatedly targeted medical workers and facilities in Aden.
Also in the south, officials and witnesses said coalition warships deployed off Aden shelled rebel forces that attempted to seize an area west of the city that is home to fuel tanks.
Fighting was also reported elsewhere in the south when rebels sought to storm the city of Dhale just north of Aden, firing tank shells, rockets and mortars against positions belonging to forces loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, according to the officials and witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
A Saudi Defense Ministry statement also accused the Houthis of violating the cease-fire by firing toward the Saudi border areas of Jizan and Najran. It said the kingdom's armed forces were exercising restraint as part of their commitment to the cease-fire.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition of Sunni Arab countries began the air campaign on March 26 to try to break the advance of the Houthis and its allies, who overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen late last year and have been on the offensive in the south.
The Saudis and their allies are seeking the restoration of the Western-backed Hadi, who fled the country in March in the face of the Houthis' advance.
Adding a new layer to the Yemeni crisis, a senior Iranian military official warned the U.S.-backed coalition against blocking a Yemen-bound Iranian aid ship, saying that such a move would "spark a fire" in the region.
Iranian Gen. Masoud Jazayeri warned that actions against the aid ship would not be tolerated.
"The self-restraint of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not limitless," Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff, told Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam state TV. "Both Saudi Arabia and its novice rulers, as well as the Americans and others, should be mindful that if they cause trouble for the Islamic Republic with regard to sending humanitarian aid to regional countries, it will spark a fire, the putting out of which would definitely be out of their hands."
Iran says the ship, which departed on Monday, is carrying food, medicine, tents and blankets, as well as reporters, rescue workers and peace activists. It is expected to arrive in the rebel-held port of Hodeida next week — likely after the five-day cease-fire expires.
Iran's navy said Tuesday it will protect the ship, and on Wednesday Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran would not permit any country involved in the Yemen war to inspect its cargo.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S. opposed the idea of governments delivering their own assistance outside of the coordination of the U.N. "Iran is no exception to this," he told reporters.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a military spokesman, said Tuesday that no ship would be permitted to reach Yemen unless there was prior coordination with the coalition.
The U.S, which supports the coalition, and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of arming the Houthis. Iran supports the rebels, but both Tehran and the Houthis deny it has provided weapons to them.
The conflict has killed more than 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19, according to the U.N. The country of some 25 million people has endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of a Saudi-led naval, air and land blockade.
The cease-fire is meant to help ease the suffering of civilians in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country.
A U.N. Security Council statement late Tuesday called on the secretary-general to convene U.N.-led talks on Yemen, and it urged all stakeholders to take part. Officials have said the U.N. has not yet set a date for such talks.
The new U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met Wednesday with leaders of Saleh's one-time ruling party. Ahmed has said he intends to meet separately with Yemen's political leaders before a decision is made on the venue and time of talks that bring them together to chart a political blueprint for Yemen.
In a statement late Wednesday, Ahmed welcomed the humanitarian truce but noted "with concern" the continued violence in some areas.
He called on the media "to play a positive role to help de-escalate tensions" and called on all parties "to resist reacting to provocations aimed at undermining the truce which could lead to a resumption of violence."
"Further violence could hinder the provision of humanitarian aid and relief of the Yemeni people and undermine prospects for a permanent cease-fire and a return to the political process," Ahmed warned.
In the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition, a senior official said the air campaign has sought to prevent the Houthis from acquiring the influence and power of the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"Our goals are clear. The first goal is to prevent ... the growth of a power like Hezbollah," Anwar Gargash told the Arab Media Forum in Dubai.
He also emphasized the need to rebuild the deeply impoverished country once the conflict is over.
Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Adam Schreck and Aya Batrawy in Dubai contributed to this report.