RIYADH: A drone strike launched by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis yesterday 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 rebel assaults on the kingdom despite a renewed American push to de-escalate Yemen’s six-year conflict.
Pictures released by state media showed a blackened gash on the side of a passenger jet after the attack, which 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. “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 Shiite 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 km from Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen.
The rebels appear 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.
The US State Department on Friday said it had formally notified Congress of its intention to revoke a terrorism designation against the rebels, 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.
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 supporter Iran. Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the blacklisting, saying it jeopardized 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 yesterday, 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. – AFP