The kingdom's ambassador to the US announced from Washington that a coalition of 10 countries, including five Gulf monarchies, had been set up to protect the Yemeni government.

Washington said President Barack Obama had authorised the "provision of logistical and intelligence support" to the military operation.

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Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE along with Saudi Arabia 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".

Saudi envoy Adel al-Jubeir did not name the other countries involved in the coalition.

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Saudi SPA state news agency said Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan had all "expressed desire to participate in the operation" against the rebels, which the kingdom dubbed "Firmness Storm".

Al-Jubeir told reporters in Washington that the operation "is to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Huthi movement from taking over the country".

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He said that for the moment the action was confined to air strikes on various targets around Yemen, but that other military assets were being mobilised and that the coalition "would do whatever it takes".

"The Royal Saudi Air Force has taken out the Huthi air defences and destroyed numerous Huthi fighter planes," a Saudi advisor said, adding that air force "has pretty much secured most of the Yemeni air space and is now consolidating a wide no-fly zone."

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Military sources said the raids had hit rebel positions at various locations in Sanaa, including at al-Daylami airbase and the adjacent international airport in north Sanaa, as well as the presidential complex seized by the rebels in January.

Huge explosions were heard in Sanaa as strikes hit the airbase at Sanaa airport and other locations in the capital, an AFP correspondent reported.

In the south, residents reported hearing large blasts at Al-Anad main airbase, north of Aden, which was seized by anti-government forces on Wednesday.

The rebels' television station Al-Massira aired an urgent call for medics in Sanaa to head to hospitals.

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