Pakistan’s parliament opened a special session Monday to discuss Saudi Arabia’s request for the government to join its military coalition against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif convened the session because political rivals and civil society groups are increasingly against Pakistani intervention in the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen.
In opening the debate, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif did not say whether the government has made any decision on what role Pakistan intends to play, but he reiterated that Saudi leaders have been assured his country will honor its commitment of defending any threat to the kingdom’s “territorial integrity.”
“In response, the Saudi leadership expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s unreserved support to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity," Asif said, "and expressed the hope that Pakistan would join the coalition for Operation Decisive Storm by contributing aircraft, naval vessels and ground troops.”
While the government has taken the matter to parliament, authorities in Riyadh have listed Pakistan as a member of its military coalition since it began airstrikes against Houthi rebels two weeks ago in Yemen.
Critics fear military involvement could undermine Pakistan’s relations with neighboring Iran and inflame sectarian tensions between the majority Sunni and minority Shi'ite communities.
Asif said Pakistan has been maintaining close contacts with Turkey and other Muslim countries to explore ways to seek a peaceful settlement to the escalating conflict.
“Both Pakistan and Turkey are concerned at the overthrow of the legitimate government in Yemen by use of force by non-state actors. The situation is grave and might endanger the security and stability of the whole region," Asif said, adding that the Iranian foreign minister is due to visit Islamabad this week to discuss the crisis with Pakistani leaders.
Opposition MPs critical
Opposition lawmakers responded with highly critical speeches, urging the government to be part of diplomatic efforts, rather than the Saudi-led military coalition, to end what they described as a civil war in Yemen.
The leader of the opposition in the Senate, Aitzaz Ahsan, criticized the defense minister for making a “vague” statement on a highly important foreign policy issue facing Pakistan.
"If the government wants to send troops to Yemen or Saudi Arabia, what will be their exact mandate?" asked Ahsan.
Ahsan also referred to the defense minister’s statement of assuring Saudi leaders of Pakistan’s promised “strong response” to any violation of Saudi “sovereignty.”
“What would be considered a violation of the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia?” Ahsan asked.
Pakistan enjoys deep political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia where around two million Pakistanis are working in different fields and sending billions of dollars in remittances home.
Saudis have often extended financial assistance to help Pakistan’s troubled economy and provided oil on deferred payments. Prime Minister Sharif particularly has close ties with the Saudi royal family, which sheltered him for years after he was ousted from power in a 1999 military coup.
The powerful Pakistani military, which many analysts believe has the final say, also enjoys close relations with Saudi Arabia.
Analysts are skeptical about whether Pakistan's army can undertake a new battlefield assignment. Tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers are engaged in counterterrorism operations near the border with Afghanistan, while the bulk of the remaining 1.5 million active and reserve soldiers face off with rival India.
Meanwhile, fierce clashes raged in southern Yemen between Shi'ite Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the country's president, as the Red Cross faced delays with urgently needed aid deliveries.
The Houthis tried to strengthen their positions in the port city of Aden, and to the west. Witnesses say a foreign warship shelled targets in and around Aden, and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes hit an airbase north of the city, forcing Houthi fighters to flee the area.
Medical sources say more than 50 people have been killed in Aden in the past 24 hours.
Coalition warplanes also carried out airstrikes in the capital, Sana'a, hitting a security headquarters and another military compound used by the rebels.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross says it has not been able to deliver tons of medical supplies in Yemen.
The organization said it has approval from the Saudi-led coalition, but logistical concerns about flying into the war-torn country are delaying the process.
Relief workers have warned of a dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, where more than 500 people have been killed as the violence in the country grows.
On Monday, the United States condemned what it called "reprehensible attacks" on relief workers in Yemen and Syria on Friday April 3, saying the attacks led the deaths of four more relief personnel.
A Russian plane evacuated 159 people from Yemen, including 47 Russian nationals, according to the Interfax news agency.
Houthis claim atrocities
The Houthis' al Maseera TV reported that Saudi warplanes committed several atrocities in airstrikes overnight, showing what appeared to be residents pulling bodies from under the rubble of a building in the Houthi stronghold of Saada.
According to al Maseera, Saudi warplanes conducted 20 bombing raids since Sunday night over Saada, in the north of the country, as well as the coastal city of Hodeida and the interior region of Daala.
Houthi fighters in the south of the country, outside Aden, say they are protecting civilians and their property. Amateur video showed the Houthis stopping and searching vehicles, as a Houthi fighter said they were battling Islamic extremists.
In other fighting, witnesses say unidentified foreign warships shelled coastal targets in the region of Aden. The Houthis' TV reported that the ships were shelling the port area, which is now under Houthi control.
In political developments, Zeid Shami, head of the Hezb al Islah parliamentary bloc, which is loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, urged the Houthis to “behave responsibly.” The Houthis have arrested dozens of Hezb al Islah supporters in recent days. Hezb al Islah supports the Saudi-led coalition.
Meanwhile, a pro-Houthi politician denounced what he called the “Saudi-Zionist-American aggression against Yemen,” which he said is “breaching Yemeni sovereignty and targeting women, children and old people.”
Some information for this report came from reuters, AP. Ed Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo