An armed militiaman loyal to Hadi takes cover during clashes with Al Houthis in Aden’s Dar Saad suburb. More than 1,000 people have been killed since the fighting began in March.. Image Credit: AFP

Sana’a: An Iranian ship convoy suspected of carrying weapons for the Al Houthi militia in Yemen has turned back, US officials said, as Saudi-led warplanes kept up air strikes on the antigovernment forces.

The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Al Houthis.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin on Thursday accused Tehran of trying to break a naval blockade on his country, describing the war as an “Iranian plot implemented by the Al Houthi militia”.

A US official said on Thursday the nine-ship Iranian convoy that had been heading for Yemen is “no longer on the same course”.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and other American warships have deployed off Yemen’s coast to track the Iranian flotilla and possibly prevent any arms deliveries to the Iran-backed Al Houthi militia.

The flotilla included two “armed vessels,” said the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It was possible the Iranians “could make a turn to Yemen at any time,” the official added.

Iran is a key ally of the Al Houthis, but vehemently denies arming them. It has presented a peace plan to the UN calling for a ceasefire and the formation of a unity government.

With international pressure mounting for a political solution, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to appoint Mauritanian diplomat Esmail Ould Shaikh Ahmad as his new envoy to Yemen.

He replaces Morocco’s Jamal Bin Omar, who resigned last week after losing support for his mediation efforts from Gulf countries.

The Al Houthis swept into the capital in September from their northern stronghold, and later advanced south on the major port of Aden, forcing President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Riyadh last month.

The UN Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on the Al Houthis.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting since late March, according to the UN, which said on Friday at least 115 children were among the dead.

“We believe that these are conservative figures,” UN children’s agency spokesman Christophe Boulierac told reporters in Geneva, saying at least 64 of the dead children were victims of air strikes.

The UN agency said 26 children had been killed by unexploded ordnance and mines, 19 by gunshots and three by shelling.

Another 172 children had been maimed in the violence.

“There are hundreds of thousands of children in Yemen who continue to live in the most dangerous circumstances, many waking up scared in the middle of the night to the sounds of bombing and gunfire,” UNICEF representative in Yemen Julien Harneis said in a statement.

The Saudi-led military coalition on Tuesday declared the first phase of its operations against the Al Houthis and their allies was over, but there has been no end to its air strikes.

Al Houthis have demanded a complete halt to the raids as a condition for UN-sponsored peace talks.

Coalition warplanes hit a camp housing rebel troops in Yemen’s third city Taez on Friday, after a night of clashes and raids throughout the country, residents said.

Army units that remained loyal to strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh after his ouster in 2012 following a bloody year-long uprising have provided crucial support to the Al Houthis.

The main southern city of Aden also came under coalition fire as clashes between Hadi supporters and rebels raged until dawn, pro-government militiamen said.

Residents in the eastern province of Marib also reported overnight air strikes and clashes between local tribesmen and rebel forces.

The Saudi-led alliance says it has destroyed the Al Houthis’ missile and air capabilities, removing the threat to neighbouring countries.

But the capital remains in militia hands while Al Qaida has exploited the instability to seize more territory in the largely lawless southeast.

The UN says millions have been affected by the conflict and are struggling to access health care, water, food and fuel.

“The toll on civilians has been immense,” UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Johannes Van Der Klaauw said.

The UN’s human rights agency said on Friday at least 551 of the people killed were civilians.