ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's prime minister on Monday called on Iran to use its influence to help bring Yemen's Shiite rebels to the negotiating table on the crisis roiling their country, where Saudi-led airstrikes have been targeting the rebels for over two weeks.
The call came after the parliament in Sunni-majority Pakistan voted on Friday against contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition, as Pakistani officials said the kingdom had requested. Lawmakers also unanimously demanded that Pakistan "maintain its neutrality in the Yemen conflict" in order to help negotiate a diplomatic solution.
The fighting in Yemen has increasingly taken on the appearance of a proxy war between Shiite powerhouse Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, regional rivals that are also at loggerheads over conflicts in Syria and elsewhere.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he had discussed Yemen in depth with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who visited Islamabad last week, and that he denounced the power grab by the Yemeni rebels known as Houthis.
"The violent overthrow of Yemen's legitimate government by the Houthis has set a dangerous precedent," Sharif said. "It is fraught with serious risks for the entire region."
In the vote Friday, the parliament said Pakistan will "initiate steps before the U.N. Security Council ... to bring about an immediate cease-fire in Yemen," and warned of regional implications if the conflict becomes an all-out sectarian war.
The parliament decision drew criticism from Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf Arab allies.
Sharif insisted on Monday that the disappointment expressed in Gulf countries was the result of an apparent misinterpretation of the parliament resolution and assured Saudi Arabia of Pakistan's full support as an ally.
"Pakistan doesn't abandon friends and strategic partners, especially when their security is under threat," Sharif said.
"We have already intensified contacts with Saudi Arabia to monitor the ground situation and possible threats to the security and territorial integrity of the kingdom," he said.
Earlier, Pakistani officials said that Saudi Arabia had asked Islamabad to provide troops, warplanes and warships for the anti-Houthi campaign.
The kingdom has purportedly been seeking to expand the coalition, made up of fellow Gulf nations as well as Egypt and Sudan, which has waged the airstrikes campaign for over two weeks and is reportedly considering a ground incursion.
At the same time, Shiite power Iran, which supports the Houthis, has also lobbied Pakistan and other Sunni nations to back a cease-fire and a negotiated end to the conflict.
The airstrikes, along with escalated fighting on the ground between the Houthis and supporters of Yemen's beleaguered President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country, have pushed the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of collapse.
"We believe that the restoration of President Hadi's government will be an important step forward toward establishing peace in Yemen," Sharif said.
The World Health Organization said last Wednesday that at least 643 civilians and combatants have been killed since March 19, before the air campaign began. At least 2,226 have been wounded, and another 100,000 have fled their homes.
In Riyadh, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition accused the Houthis of using civilian installations to store weapons and stage attacks, adding that the coalition launched 120 airstrikes on Monday alone.
"These militias have used schools, hospitals and sports fields to store their equipment," Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri told reporters. "We are quite concerned about Yemeni civilians and the situation is very critical. These militias should not be allowed under any circumstances to make use of (these areas)."
Aid group Doctors Without Borders meanwhile said a cargo plane carrying 15 tons of urgently needed medical supplies landed in Sanaa from Djibouti on Monday, but that more access to the country is still needed.
Also Monday, Human Rights Watch urged the Saudi-led coalition and the United States to take measures to minimize harm to civilians during military operations in Yemen, releasing letters it wrote to Saudi King Salman and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The U.S. supports the coalition and has provided aerial refueling but is not taking direct military action.
The New York-based group said that the U.S. should investigate alleged laws-of-war violations by coalition forces, such as a recent strike on a displaced persons camp in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country, and also facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to populations at risk.
Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.