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Al-Qaida In Yemen Expands During Saudi Bombing Campaign


We're going to get the latest now on the conflict in Yemen. This poor country on the Arabian Peninsula has become the latest front in a battle for influence across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United States see the hand of Iran supporting rebels in Yemen who've driven the government out of the capital. To fight those rebels known as the Houthis, the Saudis have a lead an air campaign for nearly a month now. The Saudis announced an end to those airstrikes on Tuesday, but they resumed in several parts of the country within a matter of hours. Meanwhile on the ground, factions in Yemen continue to battle as the Houthis are pushing for more territory. NPR's Leila Fadel is in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and joins us on the line. Leila, good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So if the Saudis announce an end to these airstrikes and say they have achieved their objectives, why are they still launching strikes in Yemen?

FADEL: Well, the Saudis say they're continuing to see the Houthis make moves on the ground - continuing to fight. And so they started striking, you know, just a few hours after they announced the end of that campaign. It is far fewer strikes than we saw in the past. But they haven't stopped. And they continue this morning. And as this is happening, the Houthis are also continuing to fight for territory and are defiant. We're seeing videos coming out the capital yesterday where they marched through the city. So it's not clear exactly what has changed.

GREENE: I mean, the Saudis are talking about beginning peace talks. The way you describe it makes it sound like that's not likely anytime soon.

FADEL: Well, both sides say they want talks. The Houthis say they want talks. The Saudis say they want talks. I know that the Western allies of Saudi Arabia are pushing for that direction. But it's almost a catch-22. The Saudis say you can't get to the UN-facilitated talks until the Houthis put down their weapons, until they stop fighting. The Houthis say Saudi is the aggressor here. And they also want the UN talks, but not until Saudi Arabia stops striking Yemen. So you're in a situation where no one is blinking.

GREENE: Leila, help us understand what's at stake here. I mean, the United States has long been interested in Yemen because of the al-Qaeda presence there. I mean, is al-Qaeda's strength being affected by the fighting that we've been seeing?

FADEL: Well, al-Qaeda has been growing in Yemen for a while. But it seems to be accelerating in the midst of this bombing campaign. And it is not a focus of the Saudi-led airstrikes right now. A Saudi general, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, said though that by getting rid of the Houthi militias, you'll also lead to getting rid of al-Qaeda. Here's what he had to say.


BRIGADIER GENERAL AHMED ASIRI: It's an interest for the world that Al Qaeda does not have any safe haven in Yemen. But how we do this - by creating a very strong country and very stable country in Yemen.

FADEL: Now, he's saying that by fighting Houthis, you therefore lead to a more stable country. But critics say that actually Saudi's war is feeding al-Qaeda. One Western diplomat says al-Qaeda's actually growing like a weed right now. And a spokesman from al-Qaeda inside Yemen says they're really happy with the airstrikes because it's weakening their enemies, who are the Houthis and the Yemeni army.

Al-Qaeda has taken over this port city in the south called Mukalla. And right now, Yemen doesn't really have an army. It's divided, and it's been degraded by the airstrike campaign because some of the Army is fighting with the Houthis. And Yemen's government is sitting here in Riyadh while the Houthis continue to fight with rivals in the south and other areas. So it's a really dangerous and possibly destabilizing time.

GREENE: All right. We've been hearing about the tense situation in Yemen right now from NPR's Leila Fadel, who's monitoring this from the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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