Arab coalition 'reconnaissance' troops land in Yemen

Conflicting Reports of Saudi Ground Troops in Yemen


SANAA, Yemen (AP) - With helicopter gunships hovering overhead, at least 20 troops from a Saudi-led Arab coalition, including Yemeni expatriates, came ashore Sunday in the southern port city of Aden on what military officials called a "reconnaissance" mission, as fighting raged between Iranian-backed Shiite rebels and forces loyal to the nation's exiled president.

The landing was the first of its kind since the start of the Saudi-led air campaign against the rebels and their allies - forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh - who have captured most of northern Yemen and marched on southern provinces over the past year.

The objective of the landing was not immediately clear, but Yemeni military officials said the coalition troops would attempt to better organize and train forces loyal to the country's internationally recognized leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, as well as identify an area that could serve as a "green zone" from which Hadi and his government could operate when they return to Yemen.

At the top of that list, said the officials, is the al-Bureqah area west of Aden, which stretches for about 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) along the coast and is home to a major oil refinery and large fuel tanks.

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Arab coalition 'reconnaissance' troops land in Yemen
Yemenis inspect a destroyed building in Aden's suburbs on June 24, 2015 after rebel forces and loyalist fighters were locked in fierce fighting. Warplanes from the Saudi-led Arab coalition have launched heavy raids against rebel positions in seven Yemeni provinces, according to witnesses and military sources. AFP PHOTO / SALEH AL-OBEIDI (Photo credit should read SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from the Faj Attan Hill following a reported airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on an army arms depot, now under Huthi rebel control, on April 20, 2015, in Sanaa. The UN this week called the humanitarian crisis in Yemen one of the 'largest and most complex in the world'. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Shiite Houthis use anti-aircraft guns as the Saudi-led coalition strikes hit Houthi targets in Sanaa as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Shiite Houthis use anti-aircraft guns as the Saudi-led coalition strikes hit Houthi targets in Sanaa as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Pakistani woman (R), evacuated from Yemen, is greeted by relative on her arrival in Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad on March 30, 2015. Pakistan evacuated more than 500 of its citizens from Yemen by jumbo jet and sent a naval frigate to rescue others stranded in the war-torn country, officials said. AFP PHOTO / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Houthis attack Saudi-led coalition with anti-aircraft weapons after coalition carried out airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 30: Houthis attack Saudi-led coalition with anti-aircraft weapons after coalition carried out airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 27: Smoke rises after Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 27: Smoke rises after Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen on March 30, 2015 as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation against the Houthis. (Photo by Sinan Yiter/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 26: Yemeni men search for survivors in rubble of buildings after airstrikes of a 10-member coalition of Gulf countries in Yemeni capital Sanaa on March 26, 2015. Saudi Arabia has launched military operations in Yemen, as part of a coalition of over 10 countries in response to a direct request from the legitimate government of Yemen, against the Shiite Houthi group, which seized capital Sanaa and several provinces. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Yemeni man sits in the rubble of his house in the Yemeni capital on March 26, 2015 after Saudi air strikes against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport. Saudi Arabia launched a military operation overnight in Yemen by a regional coalition to defend the government of embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi as the country teeters on the brink of civil war. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni civilians and security forces stand at the site of a Saudi air strike against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport on March 26, 2015, which killed at least 13 people. Saudi warplanes bombed Huthi rebels in Yemen, launching a military intervention by a 10-nation coalition to prevent the fall of embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 22: A group of people hold banners as they march during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, at Gamal Abdul Nasser Street in Taizz, Yemen on March 22, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Yemenis drive in a car loaded with their belongings in the Yemeni capital as they move to a safer place on March 26, 2015 after Saudi air strikes against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport. Saudi Arabia launched a military operation overnight in Yemen by a regional coalition to defend the government of embattled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi as the country teeters on the brink of civil war. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni police cadets loyal to the Huthi militia which controls Sanaa march during a group funeral for the victims of last week's multiple suicide bombings that targeted Huthi mosques in the Yemeni capital, on March 25, 2015. The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group claimed responsibility for the March 20 attacks on two mosques in Sanaa that killed at least 142 people. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEN, YEMEN - MARCH 25: Members of Yemen's General People's Committee deploy at mechanized unit in Aden, Yemen on March 25, 2015. (Photo by Wael Shaif Thabet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Yemeni police cadets loyal to the Huthi militia which controls Sanaa march during a group funeral for the victims of last week's multiple suicide bombings that targeted Huthi mosques in the Yemeni capital, on March 25, 2015. The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group claimed responsibility for the March 20 attacks on two mosques in Sanaa that killed at least 142 people. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEN, YEMEN - MARCH 24: A group of Yemeni men who want to return to military stage a demonstration outside the Military Command in Aden, Yemen on March 24, 2015. (Photo by Wail Shaif Thabet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TAIZZ, YEMEN - MARCH 23: Police intervene to the demonstrators during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, in Taizz, Yemen on March 23, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - MARCH 22: A group of people hold banners as they march during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, at Gamal Abdul Nasser Street in Taizz, Yemen on March 22, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TAIZZ, YEMEN - MARCH 23: People hold flags and banners during a demonstration against Shiite Houthi movement that interfere to the country's government, in Taizz, Yemen on March 23, 2015. (Photo by Waddah Abdulqade Abdulqawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The Western-backed Hadi fled Aden to neighboring Saudi Arabia in March, just a few weeks after he fled the capital, Sanaa, which was captured by the rebels, known as Houthis, in September.

Saudi officials declined to immediately comment on Sunday's landing. However, military and security officials have repeatedly said a ground operation would follow the Saudi-led air campaign that began March 26, after the military capabilities of the Houthis and their allies had been sufficiently weakened.

On Sunday, the Yemeni officials said that streamlining the militiamen fighting the Houthis in Aden was a key step toward establishing a coherent force that a coalition expedition in Aden could lend support to.

The coalition troops, who included black-clad masked men as well as Yemeni expatriates wearing military-style shorts, landed in a central area between Aden's neighborhood of al-Mansoura and the airport, said the Yemeni officials and witnesses reached by The Associated Press inside Aden. They said helicopter gunships hovered above the landing area as the troops came ashore.

The officials, who include a top army commander based in Aden and loyal to Hadi, spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to brief journalists. Residents who witnessed the landing also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The troops used at least four vehicles to move around Aden and included Yemenis who had been serving in the armed forces of Gulf Arab members of the coalition and were likely serving as guides, the officials said.

They said the troops carried assault rifles, took photos of the areas they toured and carried topography equipment. There was no precise figure available for their number, the nationality of the non-Yemenis among them or how long they intended to stay. It was not immediately clear whether they were ferried to Aden by helicopters taking off from coalition navy ships off the coast of Yemen or traveled to shore in speed boats.

They landed amid a surge in coalition airstrikes against positions of the Iranian-backed Houthis and their allies in Aden, including those at the city's airport.

The landing came one day after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi discussed Yemen with the Saudi leadership during a brief visit to the oil-rich kingdom. Egypt, the most populous Arab state, is a key member of the coalition and has been touted as a likely participant in any ground operation in Yemen.

Details of the talks have not been disclosed by Cairo or Riyadh.

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.


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