SANAA, Yemen — Tens of thousands protested in the Yemeni capital Saturday on the anniversary of a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition’s entrance into a civil war that has killed thousands and strengthened the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in this strategic Middle Eastern nation.
As coalition jets roared overhead, some demonstrators carried the Yemeni flag and chanted “End the siege!” while others vowed to “fight the Saudi aggression and its agents until their last man.”
The conflict in this nation, which straddles the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and borders key oil shipping routes in the Red Sea, pits the government, supported largely by Saudi-led airstrikes, against the rebel Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Houthis seized control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital and largest city, in the fall of 2014, prompting the government to flee. Today, the U.S.-backed government, led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has been largely relegated to the southern port city of Aden.
The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes started in March of last year, turning the rebellion into a full-blown civil war.
On Saturday morning, many protesters carried pictures of Saleh, who gave a speech to his supporters condemning the Saudi intervention. But the former president also said that he would be open to discussions with the Saudis to bring the conflict to an end.
“I have come today to support my country,” said Ali al-Hamdani, 30, a farmer from Hamdan, a nearby district. “It has been exactly a year since this barbaric war started, and we have been suffering from all kinds of oppression by the Saudis, whether economically or politically.”
A second demonstration, organized by the Houthis, was scheduled for the afternoon.
The protests arrived at one of the more hopeful moments in the conflict. Last week, the warring sides agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that is scheduled to take hold April 10. A fresh round of peace talks is expected April 18 in Kuwait.
Many Yemenis expressed skepticism Saturday about the peace talks. Previous attempts to implement a cease-fire quickly failed, as each side accused the other of violating the pact.
“I have no faith in any dialogue by the Security Council,” said Adel Ahmed Mohammed, 22, a construction worker, referring to the United Nations. “It is not serious, and any announcement by them for peace talks is nothing more than just a media announcement.”
Even if there is success next month, it may do little to stop the violent forces unleashed by conflict. On Friday, three suicide bombers from the Islamic State attacked security checkpoints in Aden, killing at least 26 people. And a U.S. airstrike Tuesday on an al-Qaeda training camp in the southeastern province of Hadramaut killed more than 70 fighters, according to the Pentagon.
In the war’s chaos, al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP — has bolstered its grip on the country’s south and east, overrunning large swaths of territory. U.S. officials describe AQAP as the terrorism network’s most dangerous branch, and it has been a target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts for more than a decade.
A nascent affiliate of the Syria and Iraq-based Islamic State has also targeted both government and rebel forces in a series of assaults, signaling its intention to transform Yemen into one of its satellite strongholds.
The war itself is an extension of the deepening Sunni-Shiite divide in the Arab world and the long-standing battle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim monarchy and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. The Houthis, who adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, are widely seen as being backed by Iran, although Tehran has denied the allegations.
The United States is backing the Saudi-led coalition — which includes other Persian Gulf nations along with Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Sudan — by sending munitions, refueling aircraft and other others form of support.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in the war and millions more displaced, according to the United Nations. Human rights groups have charged that the Saudi coalition airstrikes have indiscriminately killed hundreds of civilians, and they have urged the United States and its allies to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Ranked the Arab world’s poorest country long before the war, Yemen has been pushed to the edge of famine because of the violence and has possibly set back its economic development for decades.
“We have no fuel, in addition to many of the basic needs,” said Hamid Mansoor al-Abed, 37, one of the protesters Saturday.
Abed, who works at a grocery store in Sanaa, said his cousin was killed in a Saudi coalition airstrike while he was on a bus returning from work. “The hands of the Saudis and the international community is stained by the blood of the Yemeni people, the mothers, fathers and children,” he continued. “You can hear the terrifying sounds of the Saudi airplanes now as we speak. They are trying to scare us and provoke us, but we don’t care. We are not afraid.”
Raghavan reported from Cairo.