The Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Shia Houthi rebels has asked Pakistan to contribute soldiers, raising the possibility of a ground offensive in the country.
Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif revealed the request as the country’s parliament debated whether to contribute militarily to the campaign against the Houthis.
So far, Pakistan has backed the mission, but has not offered any military assistance. However, Saudi-led air strikes have failed to halt the Houthi advance across Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, fuelling speculation a ground operation could be launched.
Saudi Arabia has not ruled out a ground offensive and asked for aircraft and ships to aid the campaign during Mr Asif’s visit to Jeddah last week. “I want to reiterate that this is Pakistan’s pledge to protect Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity,” said Mr Asif. “If there’s a need, God willing, Pakistan will honour its commitment.”The rebels took over the Yemen capital, Sanaa, in September and eventually forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.
The Saudi-led coalition has been targeting the Houthis for 12 days. The rebels are now making a push for Yemen’s second-largest city, Aden, which Hadi declared a temporary capital before he left the country.
The Saudi-led force has blockaded Yemen by air and sea. Humanitarian groups, as well as Russia at the UN Security Council, have called for a pause in the fighting to allow aid to reach the country. Medical personnel are already overstretched and are running out of supplies.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said that despite days of negotiating with the Saudi-led coalition and others, an aid plane it dispatched was grounded in Djbouti.
“We are working to get another plane that can carry as much as possible. But it is a challenge because you cannot easily find airplanes or airlines that are allowed or willing to fly to Yemen,” said Marie Claire Feghali, an ICRC spokeswoman in Sanaa.
She said a surgical team was also urgently awaiting clearance to travel by boat from Djibouti to Aden, where the ground fighting is fiercest. “The hospitals are exhausted,” she said. “The entire health system is under huge pressure.”
At least three Red Crescent volunteers were killed in the past week while evacuating the wounded and retrieving dead bodies from the fighting in Aden and the southern province of al-Dhale.
ICRC called the killings deliberate. “There are bodies on the streets. This is why we called for a 24-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting so that people can collect the dead,” said Ms Feghali.
Fighting is also intense in the area surrounding Aden, as the Houthis and allied forces attempt to take over the city, its port and government offices to tighten their grip on power.
The Saudi-led coalition forces are providing weapons through airdrops to the fighters loyal to Hadi.
The evacuation of foreign nationals is continuing. India said nearly all of its citizens would be evacuated by last night. India has rescued nearly 2,300 citizens, mostly by sea from Aden. It was unclear how many more were left.
A Chinese warship evacuated the last of its citizens, about 38 nationals, as well as 45 Sri Lankans.
Pakistan, which has a Muslim-majority, has close ties with Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
It also has a sizeable Shia minority, complicating the debate over engagement in a conflict that is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shia.