SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s Houthi rebels are enduring fierce bombing raids in their northern strongholds, as a Saudi-led campaign pounds neighborhoods, markets and power facilities, according to residents and aid workers.
But the insurgents have not only survived — they also are threatening to push the war beyond this country’s borders.
Since early May, the rebels and their allies have launched near-daily attacks over the mountainous frontier into Saudi Arabia, even firing a Scud missile, according to Houthi fighters and foreign analysts. The Houthis say they have killed dozens of Saudi soldiers and civilians.
The Saudi attacks and rebel response are raising the tempo of the three-month-old war, which has dramatically worsened a long-standing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
“There’s a risk that with continued aerial bombardment of Houthi targets, the Houthis, in turn, will push even harder to attack southern provinces [of Saudi Arabia], creating a security disaster for the Saudis,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based expert on military issues in the Middle East.
Analysts say the Houthis may be trying to provoke the Saudis into launching ground attacks in northern Yemen, which could leave the Saudis with heavy casualties. In 2009, Houthi rebels killed more than 100 Saudi troops in border skirmishes. The recent Houthi cross-border attacks also may be intended to strengthen the rebels’ bargaining position at U.N.-sponsored peace talks that began Tuesday.
The Saudis and a mostly Arab coalition launched the air war in March, after the Houthi rebels overthrew the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and pushed to the southern city of Aden. Saudi Arabia, the region’s foremost Sunni power, views the Shiite rebels as proxies of its enemy, Shiite Iran.
Residents and aid workers say the Saudi-led offensive has been especially devastating in northern Saada province, the Houthi heartland, a destitute farming region. There, neighborhoods and villages have been leveled, they say.
“The level of destruction in Saada is quite overwhelming,” said Teresa Sancristóval, an emergency coordinator with the aid group Doctors Without Borders. Until late last month, she worked at the Republican Hospital in Saada City, the only functioning medical center in the province. The airstrikes have hit power facilities, banks and nearly every government building, she said. She said the hospital received a steady stream of wounded civilians.
Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asseri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, declined to discuss the number of coalition air raids conducted in Saada. He denied that civilians are being targeted, emphasizing that “precise weapons” are used if Houthis create “command-and-control centers among civilians.”
The Houthi leadership, based in Saada, has weathered the wave of Saudi bombings, according to rebels and analysts. Fighters use the region’s crags and caves for cover, they say. And the rebels say they are now taking the fight to their enemies.
“We’re killing their soldiers and threatening their cities,” said Ali Abdullatif, 35, a Houthi rebel who said he had participated in cross-border raids from Saada.
The Houthi fighters have been firing artillery at Saudi military posts and cities and launching guerrilla attacks on Saudi troops along the border.
In May, Houthi attacks forced the Saudis to cancel flights and close schools in Najran, a Saudi city near the border.
This month, rogue Yemeni military units working with the rebels fired a Scud missile from Saada toward Saudi Arabia’s largest air force base, located near the southwestern city of Khamis Mushait. According to Saudi media reports, the missile was intercepted. The Houthi allies appear to have a number of such missiles, which have a range of 200 miles or farther, analysts say.
Asseri, the Saudi spokesman, declined to disclose figures on Saudi forces and civilians killed in the Houthi cross-border raids.
The Saudis had hoped that their bombing campaign and an air and naval blockade of Yemen would force the Houthis to pull back to the north and allow the reinstatement of Hadi’s government, which now operates out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital.
But those objectives have not been achieved, dealing an embarrassing blow to Saudi Arabia’s leaders, said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Persian Gulf countries at Durham University in Britain.
He said that continued rebel attacks could be especially damaging to the credibility of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister. The young leader is overseeing the war, which is part of a more assertive foreign policy adopted by his father, King Salman, who ascended the throne in January.
“For the Houthis to win, all they have to do is hold their positions,” Davidson said.
The destruction in Saada reflects the mounting toll from the war. Millions of Yemenis are suffering shortages of food, water and fuel. Air raids and battles between Saudi-aligned militias and the Houthis and their allies have killed more than 2,500 people, wounded approximately 11,000 and displaced more than half a million, according to the United Nations.
The Houthi fighters honed their guerrilla tactics in Saada during an insurgency that began in 2004. After an uprising in 2011 that unseated Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the rebels became the country’s dominant power.
Tameem al-Shami, a Health Ministry spokesman in the Houthi-dominated government in the capital, Sanaa, said the Saudi air raids have hit food markets, medical facilities and at least five ambulances in Saada. But collecting data on civilian casualties is difficult, he said.
Adnan al-Qafla, 30, said he spent a month living in caves with his wife and two children after planes from the Saudi-led coalition began pounding his village in the Baqim area of Saada early last month.
“We tried to get back to our village to collect our belongings, but there was nothing left. Our home and 60 other homes were completely destroyed,” said Qafla, who fled to Sanaa this month.
Women and children were among those killed by the airstrikes, he said.
In a report last month, Human Rights Watch accused the Saudi coalition of targeting Saada with cluster bombs, which can be especially lethal to civilians because they scatter small munitions over a wide area.
The Houthis appear to be flaunting their attacks from Saada and other areas near the Saudi border. Video footage purporting to show recent rebel strikes on Saudi troops has been posted on social media sites, though the authenticity of the images could not be verified.
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official based in the capital, declined to say how many raids the rebels had conducted in Saudi Arabia. “If the Saudis don’t halt their attacks, then all options are still open for us to respond,” he said by telephone.
Abdullatif, the Houthi rebel, said by telephone that the destruction in Saada has caused residents to rally around the Houthis.
“The Saudi attacks have done nothing but unite us,” he said.
Naylor reported from Beirut.