A coalition led by Saudi Arabia ordered civilians in rebel strongholds in northern Yemen to flee by nightfall Friday, warning it will strike anything in the region, even as the Saudis pressed for a cease-fire to begin next week.
After the evening deadline passed, the coalition's warplanes attacked a rebel-held complex in the region that was believed to contain weapons, a Saudi news agency reported.
The declaration of an entire region of Yemen as a “military target” was a sharp escalation that raised alarm about more casualties in a conflict that has killed over 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19. The fighting also has created a humanitarian crisis in what was already the Arab world's most impoverished nation.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced in Paris that a cease-fire aimed at allowing humanitarian aid to reach Yemen's embattled population of 25 million would begin Tuesday — but on the condition that the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies also halt hostilities.
The mixed signals from Saudi Arabia seemed to have two purposes: The declaration of an all-out war in the northern region of Saada, the Houthis' stronghold, appeared aimed at stopping cross-border attacks against Saudi cities that have inflicted civilian casualties. At the same time, it appeared to pressure the Houthis and their allies — military units loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh — to abide by a cease fire.
Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab countries began the air campaign March 26 to break the advance of the Houthis and Saleh's forces, who overran the capital of 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 President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last month in the face of the Houthis' advance.
Earlier Friday, the coalition declared that Saada province “in its entirety” would be considered a “military target” and told its population to leave by 7 p.m., according to the announcement on Saudi state TV. The mountainous province that borders Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the Houthi movement and was the base for rebel forces that swept over northern Yemen.
The extent of the coalition's ultimatum was not clear. The initial statement spoke of all of Saada — which has a population of nearly 900,000 — but state TV later suggested the declaration applied to the city of Saada, which is the provincial capital, and Marran, a small mountain town where the Houthis originated.
Coalition planes dropped leaflets in Saada, asking residents to leave and saying all roads would stay open until the ultimatum expires. Security officials in Saada said hundreds of families were seeking shelter outside the province's main cities and towns.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Ali Asiri, the coalition spokesman, said airstrikes are being concentrated on all Houthi command centers in the cities of Saada and Marran. He said the declaration was prompted after Houthi rockets were fired over the border and hit Saudi cities, killing at least three people.
“Houthis will pay dearly for what they have done,” Asiri said in a statement on Saudi state TV Thursday. “In the past, operations were only meant to protect legitimacy in Yemen. Now we are taking the lead.”
In a posting on its Twitter account, the International Committee of the Red Cross said: “With or without advanced warning, direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited.”
It added, “Issuing warnings of impeding attacks does not absolve warring parties of their obligations” to protect civilians.
After the ultimatum's deadline ended Friday evening, new airstrikes hit a Houthi-held government complex believed to be housing weapons, the Saudi state news agency SPA reported. Saudi warplanes already have hit the Saada region hard throughout the conflict. In the early hours Friday, more than 50 airstrikes hit Saada, and SPA said the planes hit a land-mine factory, a telecommunications complex and command centers.
Hamed al-Bokheiti, a Houthi spokesman in Sanaa, described the Saudi declaration as a “war crime.”
Another senior Houthi official appeared to dismiss the Saudi cease-fire call, saying the air campaign must stop without conditions.
“Halting the assault is a demand by the Yemeni people. We demanded halt of the assault but without any conditions,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Speaking in Paris alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, al-Jubeir said the halt in fighting would start Tuesday at 11 p.m. local time. The so-called humanitarian pause is renewable, depending on rebel compliance.
Asked how the promise of a truce squared with his country's air campaign in Saada, al-Jubeir said the cease-fire was set to begin in five days. In the meantime, however, the Saudis must respond to cross-border attacks, where were “something we will not tolerate,” he said.
Kerry said the cease-fire is conditioned on the Houthis agreeing “that there will no bombing, no shooting, no movement of their troops for military advantage, no repositioning of heavy weapons.”
“A humanitarian catastrophe is building,” Kerry warned, saying civilians were running out of food, fuel and medicine and that aid groups needed to be allowed to get supplies into and around the country.
Kerry said the U.S. was working international aid groups to get supplies in quickly after the cease-fire, but in an organized manner and in a way that ensures no military goods are brought in.
The new U.N. envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met Friday with Hadi and other officials in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, as well as with “various Yemeni political party leaders as he continued with his efforts to hear from all sides” in the conflict, said Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general.
Among the declared goals of the Saudi-led campaign is to restore Hadi and his government in the southern city of Aden, which was declared a temporarily capital before Hadi's escape to Riyadh.
The U.S. supports the Saudis and a coalition of other Arab countries in the air campaign against the rebels.
Iran has backed the rebels and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. say it also provides them with weapons — a claim both the Houthis and Tehran deny.
In the Iranian capital, up to 6,000 protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers in to denounce the Saudi-led strikes. The crowd chanted, “Death to America” and “Death to the Saud family,” which rules the kingdom.