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Ships join Saudi-led fight in Yemen

Saudi-led coalition planes have pounded rebels in Yemen for a sixth day, for the first time using ships to bomb the rebel-held airport and outskirts of the port city Aden.

The airstrikes' campaign by Sunni Arab states, which began last week, is meant to halt the advance by the Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who have overrun the country and forced Yemen's president to flee abroad.

The coalition bombed the Iran-backed rebels around the capital, Sanaa, according to Yemeni military officials. They said the strikes targeted Houthi positions and camps, as well as weapons depots controlled by them.

Meanwhile, Iran said it had sent an aid shipment to Yemen - the first since the Saudi-led airstrikes started, the official IRNA news agency said.

The aid contained 19 tons of medicine and medical equipment, and two tons of food provided by the Iranian Red Crescent, it reported.

The agency said the aid was delivered by air early today. The coalition has bombed a number of rebel-held airports and says it is in full control of Yemen's airspace.

The conflict in Yemen marks a major escalation in the regional struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which also back rival sides in Syria's civil war.

Arab leaders unveiled plans at a conference on Sunday in Egypt to form a joint military intervention force for Yemen, which could raise tensions further.

Critics of the Houthis claim they are an Iranian proxy. Iran has provided aid to the rebels, but both Tehran and the Houthis deny it has armed them.

"Claims about the dispatch of weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen are completely fabricated and sheer lies," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham today.

She criticised Saudi-led airstrikes, saying they have caused a high number of casualties and extensive damage.

The Saudi-led coalition said yesterday that it has effectively imposed a naval blockade, days after taking control of the country's airspace, to prevent weapons or fighters from getting in or out of Yemen.

It also repelled a push by the Houthis and their allies, loyal to Yemen's ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, toward Aden.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi declared Aden a temporary capital after fleeing rebel-controlled Sanaa.

Mr Hadi, who was a close US ally against Yemen's powerful al Qaida affiliate, fled the country last week but remains Yemen's internationally recognised leader.

The US has provided support to the Saudi-led coalition but is not carrying out direct military action.

The UN human rights office and the international Red Cross have said they are alarmed by the high number of civilian causalities taking place in Yemen.

A statement from Geneva said UN human rights staff have verified that at least 19 civilians died when airstrikes hit a refugee camp in the north, with at least 35 wounded, including 11 children.

There were different reports of casualty figures from yesterday's strike. The Houthi rebels said 40 people died while Doctors Without Borders said 29 people were killed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is appealing to the parties in the conflict to allow delivery of medical supplies to the wounded.

The UN human rights office in Geneva said that in the past five days at least 93 civilians have been killed and 364 wounded in five Yemeni cities engulfed in the violence, including Sanaa.

The overall figures are likely to be much higher and it was not immediately clear if the casualties cited by Geneva referred to airstrikes alone or the strikes and fighting between Yemen's warring factions.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Yemen's security was integral to the Gulf Arab region's overall security.

"We are not warmongers, but if the drums of war call for it, we are prepared," he said in a speech to the consultative Shura Council. "The Houthi militias and the former president (Saleh), with the Iranian support, insist on messing in Yemen."

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said he was shocked by yesterday's airstrike at a camp for displaced people and called on all sides to protect civilians and to resolve their differences through dialogue.

"The situation in Yemen is extremely alarming, with dozens of civilians killed over the past four days," he said. "The country seems to be on the verge of total collapse."

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