SANAA, Yemen (AP) — With helicopter gunships hovering overhead, at least 20 troops from a Saudi-led Arab coalition came ashore Sunday in the southern port city of Aden on what military officials called a "reconnaissance" mission, as fighting raged between Iranian-backed Shiite rebels and forces loyal to the nation's exiled president.
It was the first ground landing by coalition forces since the start of the Saudi-led air campaign against the rebels and their allies — forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh — who have captured most of northern Yemen and marched on southern provinces over the past year.
In Cairo, meanwhile, Egypt, a key coalition member that has been named as a likely participant in any ground offensive in Yemen, acknowledged for the first time that it has deployed troops in the Gulf region and the Red Sea as part of the Saudi-led coalition.
The objective of Sunday's landing was not immediately clear, but Yemeni military officials said the coalition troops would help train forces loyal to the country's internationally recognized leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been in exile since he fled Aden in March. They would also try to identify an area that could serve as a "green zone" from which Hadi and his government could operate when they return to Yemen.
At the top of that list, said the officials, is the al-Bureqah area west of Aden, which stretches for about 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) along the coast and is home to a major oil refinery and large fuel tanks.
The Western-backed Hadi fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia in March, just a few weeks after he fled the capital, Sanaa, which was captured by the rebels, known as Houthis, in September.
Saudi officials declined to immediately comment on Sunday's landing. However, military and security officials have repeatedly said a ground operation would follow the Saudi-led air campaign that began on March 26, after the military capabilities of the Houthis and their allies had been sufficiently weakened.
On Sunday, the Yemeni officials said that streamlining the militiamen fighting the Houthis in Aden was a key step toward establishing a coherent force that a coalition expedition in Aden could lend support to.
The coalition troops, who included black-clad masked men as well as Yemeni expatriates wearing military-style shorts, landed in a central area between Aden's neighborhood of al-Mansoura and the airport, said the Yemeni officials and witnesses reached by The Associated Press inside Aden. They said helicopter gunships hovered above the landing area as the troops came ashore.
The officials, who include a top army commander based in Aden and loyal to Hadi, spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to brief journalists. Residents who witnessed the landing also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The troops used at least four vehicles to move around Aden and included Yemenis who had been serving in the armed forces of Gulf Arab members of the coalition and were likely serving as guides, the officials said.
They said the troops carried assault rifles, took photos of the areas they toured and carried topography equipment. There was no precise figure available for their number, the nationality of the non-Yemenis among them or how long they intended to stay. It was not immediately clear whether they were ferried to Aden by helicopters taking off from coalition navy ships off the coast of Yemen or traveled to shore in speed boats.
They landed amid a surge in coalition airstrikes against positions of the Iranian-backed Houthis and their allies in Aden, including those at the city's airport.
In Cairo late Sunday, a statement issued by Egypt's National Defense Council said the top policy body had agreed to extend by three months the deployment of Egyptian troops for "combat missions" as part of the Saudi-led coalition to protect Arab and Egyptian interests in the Gulf region and the Red Sea, including its strategic southern Bab Al-Mandab entrance. The council, which is chaired by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, gave no other details.
The Associated Press reported exclusively in March that Egyptian military advisers were deployed alongside Saudi forces near the Yemeni border and that Egyptian troop carriers were stationed off the Yemeni Arabian Sea coast.
Sunday's landing came one day after el-Sissi discussed Yemen with the Saudi leadership during a brief visit to the oil-rich kingdom. Details of the talks have not been disclosed by Cairo or Riyadh.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.