NAJRAN, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia declared an end on Tuesday to its nearly monthlong "Decisive Storm" air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and announced the start of a more limited military campaign aimed at preventing the rebels from operating.
Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said the campaign of heavy airstrikes would be scaled down, but did not confirm whether they would stop altogether.
"There might be less frequency and the scope of the actions might be less, but there will be military action," Asiri said.
He said the goals of the coalition's new phase, called "Renewal of Hope," are to prevent Houthi rebels from "targeting civilians or changing realities on the ground."
The U.S.-backed campaign by Saudi Arabia, which was launched March 26, was aimed at crushing the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former autocratic Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had taken over the capital of Sanaa and much of northern Yemen. The kingdom says the aim is also to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia last month.
Asiri said that Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies, mainly Gulf Arab countries, were concluding this phase of the operation upon the request of the "legitimate" Yemeni government, led by Hadi.
Hadi, in a speech broadcast after midnight on Saudi network Al-Arabiya and Qatar's Al-Jazeera, thanked his Saudi allies for supporting his "legitimacy" as president of Yemen.
Al-Qaida in Yemen has made tactical gains amid the chaos. The ground fighting and airstrikes have pushed Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, to the brink of collapse. The fighting has also taken on the appearance of a proxy war between Iran, the Shiite powerhouse backing the Houthis, and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi militias are active in the southern port city of Aden, which has seen fierce fighting and the shelling in recent weeks. Earlier Tuesday, the coalition pounded Houthis and their allies, killing 20 fighters in the western city of Ibb, where Yemeni security officials say the rebels were assembling to head to Aden as reinforcements against forces loyal to Hadi.
Meanwhile, the civilian death toll rose to 38 from airstrikes the day before in the capital, Sanaa, officials said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The rebel-controlled Interior Ministry said 84 people in total were killed across the country in Monday's airstrikes. The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed.
Asiri said that coalition forces would continue to maintain a naval blockade on Yemen to vet ships and their content to ensure no weapons reach the Houthi militias or Saleh's forces.
Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of arming the Houthis — a claim both Tehran and the rebels deny, though the Islamic Republic has provided political and humanitarian support to the Shiite group. For its part, Shiite Iran has long accused Saudi Arabia of supporting Sunni militants, including the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. Navy said aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was steaming toward the waters off Yemen on Monday to beef up security and join other American ships that are prepared to intercept any Iranian vessels carrying weapons to the Houthis. The deployment comes after a U.N. Security Council resolution last week imposed an arms embargo on Houthi leaders.
The Houthis are also active in the north along parts of Saudi Arabia's border. At least seven Saudi soldiers in border areas have been killed this month from gunfire or mortar fire in clashes with the Houthis.
Asiri said the work of Saudi ground forces along its border, in provinces like Najran and Jizan, would continue in order to protect the kingdom and block threats to its security.
Mansour Salem, a Saudi resident of Najran, said he was happy to hear that the current phase of the operation in Yemen had ended. The city of Najran has been largely untouched by the war, but its border areas have seen deadly clashes with Houthis.
The Associated Press witnessed a Saudi military unit at the border firing 15 rounds of mortar fire into Yemen from Najran on Tuesday.
"It's happy news that Decisive Storm has ended.... Saudi Arabia and Yemen are one people," Salem said. "There are no winners in war."
Earlier Tuesday, the official Saudi news agency reported that King Salman had ordered the country's powerful National Guard to take part in the Yemen operation. There were no further details on the scope of the deployment.
Asiri said that the initial operation "was carried out successfully" and achieved its objectives of damaging the rebels' military capabilities.
"As coalition forces, we confirm that all Houthi capabilities were targeted, foremost their ballistic missiles," he said.
He said that the focus now is on rebuilding the country while denying the rebels operational movement, protecting civilians, and supporting evacuation and relief operations.
Saudi Arabia's Embassy in Washington DC wrote on their official Twitter account that the new operation would "focus on the political process that will lead to a stable and secure future for Yemen." No futher details were given.
Following Saudi Arabia's announcement that it was shifting phases, pro-Houthi Almasirah television said their forces called for mass protests in Sanaa on Wednesday to denounce the kingdom's aggression.
In remarks Tuesday to reporters, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the airstrikes in Yemen were prompted by Saudi Arabia's failures in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, causing what he called a "mental imbalance".
"All the failures have accumulated and caused mental and emotional imbalance for that country," Rouhani said.
Associated Press writers Brian Rohan in Cairo and Ali Akbar Dareini Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.