RIYADH (Reuters) - Special forces troops fighting the Houthi militia in Aden were Yemenis deployed there two weeks ago after retraining in Gulf Arab countries, not foreign troops, Yemen’s Foreign Minister Reyad Yassin Abdulla said on Monday.
Their smart uniforms and equipment led to reports on Sunday that a Saudi-led Arab coalition had sent in ground troops after weeks of air strikes against the Iran-allied Houthi rebels and army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“It’s a group of the Yemeni forces. We retrained them and we send them to organise things. We are now training more and we are sending more,” Abdulla, part of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government in exile in Riyadh, said in an interview.
The rebel forces hold swathes of Yemen, having advanced hundreds of miles across the country from their northern stronghold in recent months and are now fighting for control of the southern port city of Aden.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Monday that the alliance was considering calling truces in specific areas in Yemen to allow in humanitarian supplies.
Saudi Arabia is trying to restore Hadi’s government and a major part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy is to split Saleh’s army units from the lightly armed Houthis, who might struggle on their own to hold the captured southern regions.
Abdulla said Saleh still wanted to leave Yemen but that Gulf countries would not meet his terms, which he said included taking in hundreds of his followers and granting him a pension.
“He is greedy. He is asking for a lot of money, he is asking for a lot of followers,” he told Reuters in the Saudi capital.
A conference between Yemeni political groups has been scheduled by Hadi’s government for May 18 in Riyadh, but was rejected by both the Houthis and Saleh, meaning it will not provide an opportunity for peace talks.
However, several leading figures from Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), have arrived in Riyadh and pledged loyalty to Hadi’s government, Abdulla said, leaving their former president increasingly isolated.
These include former telecom minister Ahmed bin Dagher, Bakeel tribal chief Mohammed al-Shayef, former GPC secretary general Sultan al-Barakani, and former Sanaa governor Abdulqader Hilal, he said.
Other Saleh loyalists had also fled Yemen and abandoned the former president but had not come to Riyadh, he said, noting that Yemen’s speaker of parliament Yahya al-Rai’i had contacted Hadi to pledge his allegiance and was in hiding.
General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a once powerful figure in Yemen’s army who fled to Saudi Arabia last year as the Houthis advanced, is not in contact with Hadi’s government, he said.
Reuters could not independently verify the status of the officials Abdulla mentioned.
Meanwhile, Hadi’s government has drawn up a list of about 50 Yemeni politicians associated with Saleh whom it accuses of war crimes in the period since the Houthis seized Sanaa last year.
“Those who are coming to Riyadh and their hands were involved in Yemeni blood, they shouldn’t think that since they came here that we will waive all their previous crimes,” Abdulla said.
Coalition air strikes killed at least five people in the central province of Ibb and destroyed a cargo plane at Sanaa airport, while fighting in Aden killed at least five Houthis and two local fighters, residents said.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Muhammed Ghobari in Cairo; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Louise Ireland