WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.
The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive.
One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen's border as "significant" and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden.
Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had acquired intelligence about the Saudi build-up. But there was no immediate word on the precise location near the border or the exact size of the force deployed.
The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shiite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.
Hadi, who supported Washington’s campaign of deadly drone strikes on a powerful al Qaeda branch based in Yemen, has been holed up in Aden with his loyalist forces since he fled Sanaa in February.
Saudi Arabia faces the risk of the turmoil spilling across its porous 1,800 km (1,100 mile)-long border with Yemen and into its Shiite Eastern Province where the kingdom's richest oil deposits lie.
Riyadh hosted top-level talks with Gulf Arab neighbors on Saturday that backed Hadi as Yemen's legitimate president and offered "all efforts" to preserve the country's stability.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Monday Arab countries would take necessary measures to protect the region against "aggression" by the Houthi movement if a peaceful solution could not be found.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any military movements.
Yemen asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to back military action by "willing countries" to combat Houthi militias, according to a letter from Hadi seen by Reuters.
Hadi wants the 15-member body to adopt a resolution that would authorize "willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression."
Fighting has spread across Yemen since last September when the Houthis seized Sanaa and advanced into Sunni Muslim areas.
U.S. officials said on Saturday that the United States had evacuated all its remaining personnel in Yemen, including about 100 special operations forces, because of the security situation. The end of a U.S. security presence inside the country has dealt a blow to Washington's ability to monitor and fight al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.