SANAA, Yemen — Saudi and Egyptian warships deployed Friday to the Bab al-Mandab strait off Yemen to secure the strategic sea passage, Egyptian military officials said, as a Saudi-led coalition widened their airstrikes on the second day of an air campaign against Shiite rebels and their allies, aiming to pave the way for possible ground operations.
A top priority for the campaign after the air campaign was weakened the rebels is for coalition troops — likely Egyptians — to move into the southern port city of Aden, a main stronghold of supporters of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to leave the country as the rebels and their allies moved on Aden, Yemeni and Egyptian military officials said.
That could prove a tough prospect. On Friday, rebel fighters and their allies — military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh — were moving through southern Abyan province toward Aden, aiming to reinforce their fighters already in the city, Yemeni security officials said. At the same time, pro-Hadi military units and militiamen were fighting rebel forces in street battles in several southern cities on Friday.
The events Friday and the comments by the military officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, gave an initial picture of Saudi and Egyptian plans in the conflict that abruptly burst into a regional fight on Thursday after months of chaos within Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are aiming push back the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and Saleh's forces, which have taken over the capital, Sanaa, and much of the mountainous, impoverished nation. The ultimate goal is to restore Hadi, who was expected to arrive in Egypt on Friday for an Arab summit the following day. Saudi Arabia fears the Houthis will give Shiite powerhouse Iran a new foothold on its southern border.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin said there was an "arrangement" for ground troops of the Saudi-led coalition to deploy in Yemen. "It's a comprehensive military operation," he told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel. He said Egyptian naval forces are heading to Bab al-Mandab.
Several Egyptian military officials told the AP that Egyptian and Saudi warships were already at or near the strait. One official said two destroyers and two other vessels were at the strait. Egypt has said securing the passage is a priority for it in the conflict, since Bab al-Mandab is the entrance to the Red Sea, leading from the Arabian Sea to its Suez Canal, a vital route for shipping between Europe and Asia.
After more than 36 hours of airstrikes by Friday afternoon, more than 40 percent of Yemen's air defenses were destroyed, according to Yemeni Brig. Gen. Saleh al-Subaihi, a pro-Hadi officer.
Yemeni security officials said around 80 fighters had been killed in the strikes — some from the Houthis, but most from among Saleh's forces. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. The first salvo of airstrikes before dawn Thursday also killed 18 civilians — including six children — when they flattened a block of homes in an impoverished neighborhood near Sanaa's airport.
Diminishing Saleh's forces is a key step before any ground action. Saleh, who ruled Yemen with an autocratic hand for decades, was removed in 2012 following an Arab Spring popular uprising against him, and Hadi was installed in his place.
But Saleh remained in Yemen and maintained widespread influence, particular in the fragmented military and security forces. One Yemeni security official on Friday estimated that 70 percent of the military remained loyal to him, including many of the best trained and equipped units, and they are in bases around the country. Their support for the Houthis has been crucial to the rebels' takeover.
Airstrikes on Friday struck in at least six provinces. In the capital Sanaa, heavy airstrikes came in waves overnight, shaking the city as anti-aircrafy guns fired. New strikes hit Saada, the northern stronghold of the Houthis, aiming at locations where rebel leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi might be, the Yemeni military officials said. The grave of his brother Hussein al-Houthi, founder of the rebel group, was demolished in the strikes. The attacks prompted Houthis to shut down schools and cancel classes indefinitely, according to a statement sent to reporters by the group.
Saudi warplanes also bombed camps and bases of pro-Saleh army forces northeast of Sanaa and in the southern provinces of al-Dhale and Lahj. In the oil- and gas-rich north-central provinces of Marib, strikes targeted radar facilities.
Retired Yemeni army officer Nasser al-Marqashi said he expects the airstrikes to continue for a week to weaken the air defenses before a ground offensive, which would likely be launched from Aden or from the country's sparsely populated far eastern Hadramout province, where Hadi also has supporters.
Houthis and the Saleh loyalists control at least 10 of Yemen's 21 provinces. But in many of those places, their hold is not complete, particularl in the south. In Dhamar and Taiz — two areas overrun by the rebels — thousands of demonstrators staged protests Friday in support of the Saudi airstrikes.
In the southern city of al-Dhale — capital of the province of the same name — pro-Hadi militias were fighting Saleh's forces.
Battles were also going on in the southern city of al-Houta, just north of Aden. There, part of the city is controlled by pro-Hadi militias, another part is controlled by al-Qaida militants, and both were separately fighting Houthi and pro-Saleh forces trying to take the area, Yemeni security officials said.
Saudi Arabia and fellow Sunni-led allies in the Gulf and the Middle East view the Houthi takeover as an attempt by Iran to establish a proxy on the kingdom's southern border. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though it says it provides diplomatic and humanitarian support.
According to defense officials in Washington, the U.S. is providing refueling tankers and surveillance flights for the Saudi operations, and there are several U.S. troops working in the operations center. The White House said the U.S. was not taking direct military action.
Iran has denounced the Saudi-led air campaign, calling it "dangerous step."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said in a statement Friday that Tehran was "ready to cooperate with its brothers in the region, to make it easier for different groups in Yemen to have dialogue to protect the (country's) integrity and facilitate restoration of stability."
The comment came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview that his country could provide logistical support for the Saudi-led military operation. Zarif said Iran respects its strategic relations with Turkey.
On Friday, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi reiterated Cairo's commitment to Gulf security in a phone call with Saudi King Salman, saying "the security of the Gulf is a red line and part and parcel of Egyptian national security," according to presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef.
A high-level delegation from Pakistan was traveling to Saudi Arabia on Friday to hold talks on Yemen, following a meeting in Pakistan chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to assess the situation.
"If the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia is threatened, Pakistan will defend it," Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told parliament in remarks carried live on state-run television. He said there had been no decision to take part in the Yemeni conflict.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Amir Vahdat in Tehran and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.