AP Interview: Hezbollah leader blasts Saudi strikes in Yemen

BEIRUT — A top leader of the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group directed a barrage of criticism at Saudi Arabia on Monday, accusing the kingdom of committing genocide with its airstrike campaign targeting Yemen’s Shiite rebels and warning it will “pay a heavy price” for its involvement.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, the Shiite militant group’s deputy chief, Sheikh Naim Kassem, said Saudi Arabia made a “strategic mistake” by interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs.

More than two weeks of Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Yemen’s Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, have failed to stop the rebel power grab. The Saudi campaign has also turned Yemen into a new proxy war between the kingdom and Iran, which has backed the Houthis, though Tehran denies aiding the rebels militarily. Hezbollah is a close Iran ally.

The strikingly tough criticism of the region’s top Sunni powerhouse underlines the widening rift between Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran, and is likely to further polarize the Sunni-Shiite divide in a turbulent Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia has embroiled itself (in Yemen) and will incur very serious losses … that will increasingly reflect on its status, its internal situation and its role in the region,” Kassem said.

“What happened in Yemen is a crime that cannot be ignored. … Saudi Arabia is committing genocide in Yemen, we cannot be silent about that,” the Hezbollah No. 2 said, likening the Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen to Israel’s bombing campaigns in Gaza.

At least 643 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since March 19, when the Houthi power grab escalated, the World Health Organization said last week — the vast majority of them since the start of the Saudi air campaign on March 26. Another more than 120,000 people have been displaced by the airstrikes, the U.N. said Monday.

While the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has sometimes criticized Saudi Arabia in the past, it has always been careful to maintain a level of respect, particularly in light of the wide support the kingdom enjoys among Lebanon’s Sunnis. The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, a position that lends him special importance and influence in the region.

The Yemen campaign has already led to a bitter war of words between Lebanese politicians who support Iran and those who oppose it. The Lebanese are split along political and sectarian lines exacerbated by the 4-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, and the harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia was likely to inflame sectarian tensions even more.

Speaking in Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut, Kassem suggested that the Saudi-led campaign inside Yemen would lead to problems at home.

“What is happening in Yemen today will reflect on Saudi Arabia internally,” he said, adding that the predominantly Sunni kingdom has its own domestic problems that “may cause the internal situation to implode.”

“So it would be wiser for it not to interfere in Yemen’s affairs in a negative way, but rather in a positive way, by calling for dialogue,” Kassem added. Saudi Arabia has called for a negotiated solution and has offered to mediate talks between all parties to the Yemen conflict, but it has refused an immediate halt to the air campaign.

The Hezbollah leader’s comments, among the harshest so far leveled by the Lebanese militant group against the Saudi-led campaign, echoed those of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who last week also called the Saudi airstrikes genocide.

Kassem urged Saudi Arabia to “return to its senses” and halt the air campaign, which he said was only helping al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, which is a sworn enemy of the Houthis.

However, he denied accusations that Hezbollah has sent in fighters or advisers to bolster the Shiite rebels. Hezbollah’s opponents say it has sent in fighters and Yemeni officials have told the AP it is supplying advisers. Hezbollah denied a report this week in a Saudi newspaper that a Hezbollah fighter died in Yemen.

On Syria, Kassem predicted the war there would continue for a long time, adding that Hezbollah’s fighters were preparing to join President Bashar Assad’s forces in fighting the Islamic State group in the rugged Qalamoun mountains bordering Lebanon.

“I see the battle in Qalamoun as inevitable,” he said, adding that it was delayed because of weather conditions. The battle is likely to pit Hezbollah and the Lebanese army on one side of the border and the Syrian army on the other side, against the Islamic State group and Nusra Front militants.

Thousands of Hezbollah members are fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s troops against the mainly Sunni rebels seeking to topple him. Their role — highly divisive in Lebanon — has helped turn the fighting in Assad’s favor in several key locations of the war-ravaged country.

Kassem reiterated that the participation of Hezbollah in the war in Syria was to protect Lebanon from Islamic militants.

He insisted the Syrian army was on a winning streak, despite a string of recent military defeats incurred at the hands of rebels, saying they do not change the military situation on the ground.

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