SANAA, Yemen — Pakistani lawmakers on Friday unanimously voted to stay out of the Saudi-led air coalition targeting Shiite rebels in Yemen in a blow to the alliance, while planes loaded with badly needed medical aid landed in Yemen's embattled capital, Sanaa, in the first such deliveries since the airstrikes started more than two weeks ago.
Pakistan's decision to stay out of the fight likely doesn't greatly affect the Saudi-led coalition's military capabilities. But it was an embarrassment to Saudi Arabia and a crack in the solidarity of a block of Sunni-led nations that the kingdom was trying to garner against the rebels, who are supported by Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Information Minister Pervez Rashid said government will fully comply with the parliament resolution. But Saudi-led coalition spokesman Ahmed Asiri, speaking in Riyadh, said Pakistan's official government position has not yet been announced and that there are consultations between Riyadh and Islamabad on the political level.
Still, he said that while Pakistan's participation is "in the interest of Yemen" and would be an addition to the coalition, its final decision "will not affect the operations in one way or the other."
He said other coalition forces are as well trained as the Pakistani forces, which are known for their operation in similar terrain as Yemen's.
According to Pakistani officials, Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to send troops to take part in the campaign against the rebels, known as Houthis, who have seized control of Sanaa and much of the country and forced Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country.
But Pakistan appeared wary of getting involved in an increasingly sectarian conflict that has become a new proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran - and could enflame its own sectarian divisions at home. Pakistan is predominantly Sunni but has a Shiite minority that is frequently targeted by Sunni extremists. Pakistan also shares a long border with Iran.
The United States, Saudi Arabia and Hadi accuse Iran of arming the Houthis. Iran denies sending the rebels weapons but says it supports their cause and sends them humanitarian help. Iran has been trying to garner international support to stop the bombing and has stepped up its condemnation of the air campaign. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday called it "genocide."
The debate put Pakistan in an awkward position. It has long had military ties to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif was sheltered by Saudi Arabia after the coup that overthrew him in 1999. For weeks, Sunni hardliners, including a group linked to militants, have organized rallies around Pakistan denouncing the Yemeni rebels and urging Islamabad to join the coalition.
From the other side, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spent two days in Islamabad this week, discussing Yemen with Sharif and other officials.
On Friday, after days of debate, Pakistan's legislature declared the country "should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict" so that it can help a diplomatic solution. Sirajul Haq, the head of Pakistan's powerful Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan party, said Islamabad could "play the role of a mediator." Sherif was present, suggesting his support for the result.
It called for Yemen's warring parties to resolve the conflict by dialogue and said Pakistan's diplomats should "initiate steps" before the U.N. Security Council "to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen" and warned of regional implications if the conflict becomes an all-out sectarian war.
As a nod to Saudi Arabia, they expressed "unequivocal support" for the kingdom and vowed to "stand shoulder-to-shoulder" with it if its territory or people came under threat.
Zarif has said Iran is also ready to facilitate peace talks that would lead to a broad-based government in Yemen. He also called for a cease-fire to allow for humanitarian assistance. "We need to work together in order to put an end to the crisis in Yemen," Zarif said.
The United Nations and Iran have called for a return to negotiations, and Saudi Arabia had offered to host the talks. But with military operations intensifying, it was not clear who can bring the parties to the table. The rebels insist Hadi has lost his legitimacy while Saudi Arabia and allies say they are working to restore his rule.
Egyptian Defense Minister Sedky Sobhi, whose country is a major partner in the coalition, met Friday with Saudi King Salman to discuss the Egypt's participation in the military campaign in Yemen and ways to "consolidate joint action to achieve the operation's goals." Egypt's jets and warships are taking part in the operation. Egyptian military officals have spoken previously of the possibility of a ground incursion.
Experts had said that any potential ground operation in Yemen to secure territory for Hadi would involve Saudi, Pakistani and Egyptian troops. The Saudis had held joint war games in southwest Saudi Arabia with several hundred Pakistani troops, veterans of guerrilla warfare against militant Islamic groups in their country's tribal regions along the Afghan border.
Egyptian advisers have also been stationed near the Saudi border with Yemen.
As the airstrikes campaign entered its third week, humanitarian groups are struggling to cope with the rising casualty numbers and shrinking food and fuel supplies. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that at least 643 civilians and combatants have been killed since March 19 in Yemen. At least 2,226 have been wounded, and another 100,000 have fled their homes.
On Friday, Houthi supporters held rallies in Sanaa denouncing the air campaign.
The two aid planes from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the U.N. Children's agency, UNICEF, were the first international assistance deliveries to Sanaa. A smaller delivery had arrived in the southern, port city of Aden by boat earlier this week.
ICRC spokeswoman in Sanaa Marie Claire Feghali said the 16.4 tons (18 U.S. tons) of medical supplies the organization brought can treat up to 1,000 wounded. UNICEF representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis, said the agency brought 16 tons (17 U.S. tons) of medical equipment and water supplies for about 80,000 people, along with micronutrients for up to 20,000 children.
"The supplies we have managed to bring in today can make the difference between life and death for children and their families - but we know they are not enough, and we are planning more of these airlifts," Harneis said from the Jordanian capital, Amman.
The airport area was heavily shelled overnight, with airstrikes targeting military installations and weapons depots in the area, according to witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Ground infighting between Hadi loyalists and rebel and allied fighters continued in the port city of Aden, Yemen's second largest city and a main bastion of Hadi's allies.
Aden's oil refinery, the main source of fuel for the city, was shut down after Hadi loyalists stormed it, accusing it of shipping fuel to their rivals, a refinery official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The humanitarian group Oxfam warned that life has become increasingly difficult for civilians in Yemen,particularly in Aden were fuel scarcity had already paralyzed coal water projects, cutting off water to entire communities.
The group said food has doubled in price and fuel has quadrupled in some areas as basic commodities run dangerously low. Supplies of diesel, used for transportation and also for pumping of water for irrigation and drinking, are dwindling.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Aya Batrawy from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.