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Mar 29, 8:18 AM EDT

Arab summit: Yemen airstrikes to go on until rebels withdraw


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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) -- Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen will continue until Shiite rebels there "withdraw and surrender their weapons," a summit of Arab leaders decided Sunday, as they also agreed in principle to forming a joint military force.

The decision by the Arab League puts it on a path to potentially more aggressively challenge Shiite power Iran, which is backing the Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis.

A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

At the summit, held in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby read a final communique outlining the leaders' views.

"Yemen was on the brink of the abyss, requiring effective Arab and international moves after all means of reaching a peaceful resolution have been exhausted to end the Houthi coup and restore legitimacy," Elaraby said.

The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sanaa, and later holding embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels ultimately took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.

Speaking at the summit Saturday, Hadi directly accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive, raising the specter of a regional conflict. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Speaking after Elaraby, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said leaders also agreed in principle to creating a joint Arab military force. He said a high-level panel will work under the supervision of Arab chiefs of staff to work out the structure and mechanism of the force.

Egyptian military and security officials have said the proposed force would be made of up to 40,000 elite troops and will be headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The force would be backed by jet fighters, warships and light armor.

However, it is unlikely that all 22-member nations of the often-fractious Arab League will join the proposed force. Creation of such a force has been a longtime goal that has eluded Arab nations in the 65 years since they signed a rarely used joint defense agreement.

Now in its fourth day, the Saudi-led airstrike campaign has pushed Houthi rebels out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in Yemen, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said.

The strikes also continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads "devastated," according to remarks carried Saturday by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. However, he warned that the rebels could control more of the missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan dispatched a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan's prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen's airports allowed them.

Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also tweeted Sunday: "We are doing everything to evacuate our people from Yemen at the earliest by all routes - land, sea and air."

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Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

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