Accessibility links

Egypt's Sissi: Arab Leaders Agree to Joint Military Force

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends during the closing session of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in the South Sinai governorate, south of Cairo, March 29, 2015.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends during the closing session of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in the South Sinai governorate, south of Cairo, March 29, 2015.

Arab leaders have agreed to form a joint military force in the face of the "challenges" facing the region, Egypt's president announced on the final day of a two-day Arab summit.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi made the comment Sunday during the Arab League's closing session at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. "The Arab leaders had decided to agree on the principle of a joint Arab military force," he said.

Sissi said a high-level panel will work under the supervision of Arab chiefs of staff to work out the details. Egyptian officials said the proposed force would be made up of roughly 40,000 elite troops and backed by jets, warships and light armor.

Working out the make-up and structure of the force is expected to take months, but previous attempts to create a unified command in the divided Arab world have failed.

The decision was mostly aimed at fighting jihadists who have overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria and won a foothold in Libya, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said ahead of the summit.

Threatened by 'destructive' force

On Sunday, Arabi told the meeting that the region was threatened by a "destructive" force that threatened "ethnic and religious diversity," in an apparent reference to the Islamic State group jihadists, the French news agency AFP reported.

Already, a Saudi-led coalition is staging airstrikes against positions of Shi'ite rebels in Yemen and their allies. However, it is unlikely that all 22-member nations of the Arab League will join the proposed force.

The Arab leaders also said Sunday the airstrikes in Yemen would continue until Iranian-backed Shi'ite rebels there “withdraw” and surrender their weapons.

Meanwhile, the coalition led by Saudi Arabian warplanes continued hitting targets in southern Yemen for a fourth day Sunday. The Arab coalition has said it is now in full control of Yemen's airspace after destroying almost all ground-to-air missiles in the Houthis' arsenal around both Aden and Sana'a.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the airstrike campaign continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads "devastated," according to remarks carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

However, Asiri warned Saturday that the Houthis could control more of the missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated.

The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sana'a, and later holding embattled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels later took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.

Hadi, in an address to the summit Saturday, denounced his Shi'ite opponents, most of whom are members of Yemen's Houthi ethnic group, as "puppets" and "stooges" of Iran. For its part, Iran contends it has not funded or trained the Shi'ite forces in Yemen.

Clashes Sunday

A Saudi-led coalition of some 10 countries began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi clashed Sunday with Houthi rebels in the streets of Aden. Fighting also broke out in other parts of Yemen. A security official reported that tribes near the southern oil region of Usaylan in Shabwa province killed 30 Houthi fighters, while sustaining eight casualties of their own.

The Health Ministry, loyal to the Houthi fighters who control the capital, said Sunday that Saudi-led airstrikes had killed 35 people and wounded 88 overnight. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan planned to dispatch a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan's prime minister. Pakistan said it has about 3,000 citizens living in Yemen.

A Chinese warship docked in the embattled Yemeni port city of Aden Sunday to evacuate Chinese diplomats and expatriate workers, a port official and eyewitnesses told Reuters.

And on Saturday, Saudi Arabia's navy evacuated dozens of foreign diplomats from the city.

Material for this report came from AP, Reuters and AFP.