Saudi-led coalition says troops redeploying in Yemen, not withdrawing

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FILE PHOTO: Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, speaks during a news conference in Riyadh

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Reyam Mukhshaf

DUBAI (Reuters) - The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen said on Wednesday its troops were redeploying in line with its strategy to support Yemeni forces, but were not withdrawing.

Yemeni security sources told Reuters the Saudi military had withdrawn from a major military base in Burayqah district in the southern port city of Aden, removing troops, hardware and heavy artillery.

Some of the troops and equipment were loaded in warships in Aden port, while others flew out from the city's airport, the sources said. Long convoys of the kingdom's military were seen on Tuesday heading from Burayqah military base to Aden port, witnesses said.

The spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition, General Turki al-Malki, told Reuters reports circulating about a Saudi military withdrawal from south Yemen were "baseless and unfounded".

"Movement and redeployment of troops based on operational and tactical assessment" was a standard operation "in all military forces across the world", General Malki said.

The new drawdown of Saudi forces followed intense diplomacy from the United States and the United Nations to end a seven-year-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands and put millions at risk of starvation.

U.S. Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking visited Riyadh this week as Washington pressed Saudi Arabia to lift a blockade on Houthi-held ports, a condition from the Iran-aligned group to start ceasefire talks.

However Riyadh first wants U.S. weapons to help the kingdom strengthen its defence systems following Houthi attacks on its territory with drones and ballistic missiles.

The U.S. State Department approved its first major arms sale to Saudi Arabia under U.S. President Joe Biden with the sale of 280 air-to-air missiles valued at up to $650 million, the Pentagon said last week.

Late on Wednesday, heavy blasts were heard across the capital Sanaa following air strikes by the coalition's warplanes, residents said. This followed several ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis on Saudi southern regions and Yemeni provinces of Marib and Taiz, the Houthi military spokesman said.

Ambassadors of the five permanent Security Council members also held a meeting with Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber, where they stressed the need for de-escalation, including an immediate end to hostilities in Marib region.

"All Yemeni parties should engage in genuine dialogue in order to reach comprehensive political solution to end the crisis in Yemen and alleviate the humanitarian suffering of its people," a statement issued after the meeting said.

The coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened in Yemen in 2015 after Houthi forces ousted the internationally recognised government from the capital, Sanaa.

The UAE has scaled down its military presence in the country since 2019.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Reyam Mukhashaf in Aden; additional reporting by Mohamed Ghobari, Editing by Gareth Jones and Alistair Bell)

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