Arab leaders announce the formation of a unified regional force to counter security threats, as conflicts rage in countries such as Yemen and Libya.
Meeting at a summit in Egypt, leaders called on Iranian-allied Houthi fighters who have made rapid advances in Yemen, to leave the country’s capital, according to a draft of the final communique.
The draft also called for the rebels to hand over their arms to “legitimate” authorities.
Working out the mechanism and logistics of the unified force, an idea floated by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, could take months.
Previous, similar schemes have failed to produce tangible results in the divided Arab world. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told a news conference the Arab force would be voluntary, meaning no one country would be forced to take part and it could give member states flexibility should differences arise.
At least two countries have committed to the force, he added.
Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan are reportedly carrying out air strikes against rebels in the country.
Saudi Arabia’s navy evacuated dozens of diplomats from Yemen on Saturday and the United Nations pulled out international staff, escaping the city where President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had taken refuge until Thursday, when he left for Egypt to shore up Arab support for his crumbling authority.
In the capital Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since September, the United Nations said most of its 100 international staff were evacuated. Airport officials said up to 250 other foreigners working for international oil companies and NGOs also flew out to Ethiopia and Djibouti.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged leaders to work with each other and the United Nations to “strengthen our bonds for the people of this region and the security of our world”:
— UN News Centre (@UN_News_Centre) March 28, 2015
Pakistan, which has yet to decide whether to offer military support to the Saudis, is flying jumbo jets to Yemen to evacuate hundreds of nationals, a Defence Ministry official said in Islamabad on Sunday, after TV pictures showed distraught families pleading for help.
A convoy of 600 Pakistanis was moving towards the Red Sea port of Hodeida, where “arrangements for their brief stay before their return journey to Pakistan have been made”, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was quoted by media as saying.
Around 35 people were killed overnight and another 88 wounded in the Saudi-led air strikes, an official in the Houthi-controlled health ministry told the official military news service.
The victims “fell during the Saudi aggression on Yemen in the provinces of Sanaa, Saada and Hodeidah”, director of medical emergencies Ali Saree told the outlet, without mentioning if they were civilians or soldiers.
The director general of Yemen’s Health Ministry, al-Khadher Laswar, said more than 68 people had been killed and 452 wounded in the city since Wednesday. Explosions at Aden’s largest ammunition depot on Saturday killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens, he said.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention is the latest front in its widening contest with Iran for power in the region. Their proxy struggle is also playing out in Syria, where Tehran backs Bashar al-Assad’s government against mainly Sunni rebels, and Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are playing a major role.