Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched an aerial attack on an airport in the south-west of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, setting fire to a parked civilian aircraft in an escalation of previous cross-border attacks.
State-owned media reported that the plane had been targeted with drones but the blaze had been brought under control. There were no details of any casualties. Saudi Arabian television channel Al Ekhbariya showed images of the stricken jet, which is operated by a Saudi low-cost airline, with a puncture mark in the rear of its fuselage and burn marks below the passenger windows.
“The attempt to target Abha airport is a war crime and put civilian travellers’ lives in danger,” the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said in a statement reported on Reuters.
The targeting of a civilian airliner marks a step up in the six-year conflict, which has pitted Saudi Arabia against Iran-allied Houthi rebels and has become the bloodiest proxy battle between Riyadh and Tehran.
It also comes after US president Joe Biden signalled a tougher approach to Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, ending support for offensive operations carried out by the coalition in Yemen.
Brigadier General Yahya Sarea, a military spokesman for the Houthis, claimed responsibility for the strike, saying four drones had been used to hit the airport, which the rebels regard as a military target. The attack was a response to the coalition’s siege and aerial bombardment of Yemen, he added. The coalition launched military operations in 2015 in an attempt to restore the government ousted by the Houthis. The war has since stalled into deadly stalemate.
The new US administration has vowed to increase diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the conflict, including appointing an envoy to Yemen. It has also made clear its intention to revoke the previous administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist movement in an effort to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there. Millions are on the verge of famine in Yemen.
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Yemen envoy, held talks with Iranian officials earlier this week in an effort to make progress towards a nationwide ceasefire as he attempts to revive the political process.
Houthi rebels have been intensifying their targeting of infrastructure in southern Saudi Arabia and beyond in recent months, using drones and missiles for airborne attacks and explosive-laden boats and mines in the Red Sea. In January, air defences in the capital Riyadh were successfully deployed against an aerial strike blamed on the Houthis, in a move described by diplomats as a message that residents of the capital should “not feel safe”.
In November, the rebels used cruise missiles to set fire to a petroleum products distribution facility in the port city of Jeddah, about 700km north of the Yemeni border.