Evidence is emerging that Hezbollah terrorists have been fighting alongside Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a bloody civil war has been raging for the past several weeks.
The first report of Hezbollah assistance surfaced on Friday in pan-Arab news outlet Asharq al-Awsat, which claimed that the body of a "former Hezbollah militiaman" was discovered among the dead in Yemen's Shabwa province. Fierce fighting been raging in Shabwa over the past several days as the Houthis, backed by supporters of Yemen's previous ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been making ground against forces loyal to the country's current, embattled president Abdu Rabu Mansour, despite intense Saudi airstrikes against Houthi positions.
On Saturday, Lebanon's al-Mustaqbal newspaper claimed that "several" Hezbollah fighters had died fighting in Yemen alongside the Houthis.
The Beirut-based paper cited sources as saying that Hezbollah fighters may have provided support to the Houthis as early as their capture of Yemen's capital Sanaa, noting that "several of its fighters and experts, who hold the Lebanese nationality, were in Yemen’s Sanaa before the rebels seized swathes of territory in Yemen since they entered Sanaa last September," according to a translation on the YaLibnan news site.
If confirmed, it would mark a serious escalation in the foreign backing received by the Houthis, who have already been receiving considerable support from Iran.
Saudi Arabian airstrikes have had some effect in blunting the offensive by the Houthis, who most recently seized control of the strategic port city of Aden, but they are far from defeated and still remain the strongest force on the ground.
In a statement Friday Hezbollah issued a statement denying the "baseless" report that one of their men had been killed in Yemen - but notably stopped short of denying that it was operating on the country.
"The Saudi Asharq al-Awsat daily and some Saudi and Lebanese news outlets have claimed that a Hizbullah member had been martyred in Yemen," the statement read, according to Lebanon's Naharnet.
Apart from Hezbollah fighters, more widely reported has been the presence on the ground of military "advisers" from from Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who Asharq al-Awsat claimed were in Yemen to "plan and coordinate communications" for the rebels.
In March, Qassem Suleimani - who heads the Revolutionary Guard's elite Qods Force - traveled to Yemen for the first time since the crisis began, according to BBC Arabic. The formerly secretive Suleimani has recently emerged from the shadows to take a high-profile role in Iraq leading Shia forces against ISIS, and has also led Iran's efforts to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The Qods Force's objective is to spread the Islamic Revolution, and Suleimani's presence in Yemen was seen as the more blatant indication - despite official Iranian denials - that Tehran was using the Houthis as proxies to expand its grip on the region.
The first report of a Hezbollah presence on the ground in Yemen surfaced on Thursday, the same day as Iran's state media reported a high-level meeting between Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's First Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi over the crisis in Yemen.
Iran’s Ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad Fat’hali also attended the meeting, according to Iran's Press TV and Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station.