Houthi drone strike hits civilian plane at Saudi airport
RIYADH - A drone strike launched by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis on Wednesday left a civilian plane ablaze at a Saudi airport, days after the US moved to delist the rebels as terrorists.
Saudi authorities did not immediately report any casualties from the attack, claimed by the Houthis, the latest in a series of militant assaults on the kingdom despite a renewed American push to de-escalate Yemen’s six-year conflict.
The attack occurred on the same day the new US special envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking met Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh for talks.
Colonel Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen, said forces earlier intercepted and destroyed two drones launched by Houthis toward the country’s south. He condemned the assault as a “systematic and deliberate attempt to target civilians.”
Photographs later aired by Saudi state television showed the aircraft, a 3-year-old Airbus A320 flown by low-cost carrier FlyADeal. It appeared the drone had punched a hole through its fuselage, with scorch marks on the metal. An anchor on state television said there were no injuries on the ground from the fire. FlyADeal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“A cowardly criminal terrorist attack launched against Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia by the Houthi militia,” state-run Al-Ekhbariya television quoted the Riyadh-led military coalition battling the rebels as saying.
“A fire that engulfed a passenger plane due to the Houthi attack on Abha Airport is under control,” it added.
The coalition did not say how the attack was carried out, but earlier in the day reported that it had intercepted two “booby trapped” drones in the south.
The Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen, said they had struck Abha airport with four drones.
Yahya Sarie, spokesman for the Houthis’ armed wing, claimed the airport was used to launch attacks on Yemen.
But Yemen’s information minister, Moammar al-Eryani, denounced the attack as a “full-fledged war crime” as it endangered the lives of “thousands of civilian travellers of various nationalities”.
Abha’s international airport, which has been struck by the rebels before, is just over 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen.
The Houthi militia appears to be stepping up attacks on the kingdom and on Riyadh-backed Yemeni forces after the United States moved last week to lift a short-lived designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group.
The Houthis have resumed an offensive to seize the Yemeni government’s last northern stronghold of Marib, according to a government source, with dozens of casualties on both sides.
– Answer to de-listing –
The US State Department on Friday said it had formally notified Congress of its intention to revoke a terrorism designation against the Houthis, which had been announced in the final days of the previous administration of Donald Trump.
The delisting move came a day after US President Joe Biden announced an end to American support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.
Gulf analysts have warned against the misinterpretation of the delisting by the Houthis and their Iranian sponsors as an encouragement to ratchet up their attacks.
Biden’s decisions last week mark a reversal of policies by the Trump administration, which staunchly backed Saudi Arabia and a fierce opponent of Houthi sponsor Iran.
Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the blacklisting, saying it jeopardised their operations in a country where the majority of people rely on aid and where they have no choice but to deal with the Houthis.
Biden, who has also halted some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, called Yemen’s war a “catastrophe” which “has to end.”
Last week, he appointed a US special envoy for Yemen, veteran diplomat Lenderking, who is expected to boost efforts to end the war.
In his meeting with Prince Faisal on Wednesday, Lenderking discussed “developments concerning Yemen” as well as efforts to support a “comprehensive political solution” to the conflict, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.
Biden said Lenderking would support a UN push for a ceasefire and revive talks between the Houthis and the government.
Saudi Arabia, which entered the Yemen conflict in 2015 to bolster the internationally recognised government, has repeatedly been targeted with cross-border attacks.
Last month, it said it had intercepted and destroyed a “hostile air target” heading towards Riyadh.