ISLAMABAD — A Saudi-led coalition targeting Shiite rebels in Yemen has asked Pakistan to contribute soldiers, Pakistan’s defence minister said Monday, raising the possibility of a ground offensive in the country.
Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif made the comments as Pakistan’s parliament debates whether to contribute militarily to the campaign against the rebels, known as Houthis. Pakistan previously offered its verbal support for the mission, but hasn’t offered any military assistance.
Days of Saudi-led airstrikes have yet to halt the Houthi advance across Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, fuelling speculation that there could be a ground operation launched in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and other coalition members have not ruled it out.
Saudi Arabia also asked for aircraft and naval ships to aid in the campaign, Asif said. He said Saudi officials made the request during his visit to Jeddah last week.
“I want to reiterate that this is Pakistan’s pledge to protect Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity,” Asif said. “If there’s a need be, God willing, Pakistan will honour its commitment.”
The Saudi-led campaign entered its 12th day Monday, targeting the rebels who took over the capital, Sanaa, in September and eventually forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee. The rebels and allied forces are now making a push for Yemen’s second-largest city, Aden, declared a temporary capital by Hadi before he fled abroad.
The Saudi-led force also has blockaded Yemen by air and sea. Humanitarian groups, along with Russia at the U.N. Security Council, have called for a pause in the fighting to allow for aid to reach Yemen amid dwindling medical supplies and overstretched personnel.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said despite days of negotiating with the Saudi-led coalition and others, an aid plane it dispatched is grounded in Djbouti and not allowed to fly.
“We are working to get another plane that can carry as much as possible. But it is a challenge because you cannot easily find airplanes or airlines that are allowed or willing to fly to Yemen,” said Marie Claire Feghali, an ICRC spokeswoman in Sanaa.
Also urgently needed, she said, is a clearance to allow a surgical team to arrive in Aden, where ground fighting is fiercest, from Djibouti by boat. That clearance has not yet been granted, she said.
“The hospitals are exhausted,” she said. “The entire health system is under huge pressure.”
At least three Red Crescent volunteers were killed over the past week while evacuating wounded and retrieving dead bodies from the fighting in Aden and in the southern province of al-Dhale. ICRC called the killings deliberate in a statement Friday.
“There are dead bodies on the streets in Aden. This is why we called for 24-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting so that people can also go and collect the dead,” Feghali said.
Fighting also is intense in provinces surrounding Aden, as the Houthis and allied forces attempt to take over the city, its port and government offices to tighten their grip on power.
The Saudi-led coalition forces are providing weapons through airdrops in Aden to the fighters loyal to Hadi.
Evacuations of foreign nationals also continued. India said nearly all of its citizens in Yemen would be evacuated by Monday night. As of Sunday, India had evacuated nearly 2,300 citizens, most by sea from Aden. It was unclear how many more were left.
A Chinese warship evacuated the last batch of Chinese citizens, about 38 nationals, as well as 45 citizens of Sri Lanka, from Yemen on Monday, its official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Muslim-majority Pakistan has close ties to Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Pakistan also has a sizeable Shiite minority, complicating the debate over engagement in a conflict that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
The debate in parliament will aim to decide whether their country can afford to join the conflict in Yemen when it is already at war with Islamic and sectarian militants allied with groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State. Pakistan already has nearly 300 troops in Saudi Arabia taking part in joint exercises and most Pakistanis back the idea of protecting Islam’s holiest sites from attack.
The Houthis have been backed by security forces loyal to Yemen’s ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh — whose loyalists control elite forces and large combat units in the country’s military.
Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered among the most active and dangerous branch of global militant organization, has benefited from the crisis. The chaos also has disrupted a U.S.-led drone strike program targeting suspected militants there.