Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE said they "have decided to answer the call of President Hadi to protect Yemen and his people from the aggression of the (Shiite) Huthi militia".

The statement came as Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington said the kingdom has launched a military operation against the rebels.

"The operation is to defend the legitimate government," Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Washington.

The statement from Riyadh included all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council except Oman.

Yemen has been gripped by growing turmoil since the Shiite Huthi rebels launched a power takeover in Sanaa in February.

The strife has raised fears Yemen could be torn apart by a proxy war between Shiite Iran, accused of backing the rebels, and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which supports Hadi.

Yemen's acting foreign minister Riyad Yassin warned on Tuesday that the fall of Aden would mean the "start of civil war" as he drummed up Arab military support for Hadi, who was taken to a safe haven "within Aden" as the rebels closed in.

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