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3 killed as suspected Houthi drone attack causes blasts on UAE tankers, airport fire

Fatalities are 2 Indian nationals, one Pakistani; 6 wounded; Iran-backed Yemeni rebels claim responsibility for strikes; assault comes as South Korea, Abu Dhabi sign missile deal

Screenshot from video purportedly showing fire after drone attack in Abu Dhabi on January 17, 2022. The video could not be independently verified (Screen grab)
Screenshot from video purportedly showing fire after drone attack in Abu Dhabi on January 17, 2022. The video could not be independently verified (Screen grab)

A possible drone attack may have sparked explosions on three oil tankers in Abu Dhabi and another fire at an extension of Abu Dhabi International Airport on Monday that killed three people and wounded six, UAE police said.

Abu Dhabi police identified the dead as two Indian nationals and one Pakistani. It did not identify the wounded, who police said suffered minor or moderate wounds.

Police said an investigation was underway.

While Abu Dhabi police did not immediately offer any suspects for the possible assault, Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for an attack targeting the United Arab Emirates, without elaborating. Abu Dhabi is the UAE’s seat of government and steers the country’s foreign policy.

The Iranian-backed Houthis have claimed several attacks that Emirati officials later denied took place.

The incident comes while Yemen’s yearslong war rages on and as an Emirati-flagged vessel was recently captured by the Houthis. That’s as Abu Dhabi largely has withdrawn its national forces from the conflict tearing apart the Arab world’s poorest nation while still supporting local militias there.

Illustrative — An Emirati official takes part in the opening ceremony of the first phase of the Khalifa port, about 80 kilometers (49 miles) southwest of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 1, 2012 (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Abu Dhabi police said on Monday that preliminary investigations indicated the detection of small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones, that fell in the two areas and may have caused the explosion and fire. They said there was no significant damage from the incidents, without offering further details.

Abu Dhabi police described the airport fire as “minor” and said it took place at an extension of the international airport that is still under construction.

The statement reported a separate blast on three petroleum transport tankers near a storage facility for ADNOC, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company.

The incident comes as South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in visits the UAE. During the president’s meeting with Emirati Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on Sunday, the two countries reportedly reached a preliminary deal valued at some $3.5 billion sell mid-range South Korean surface-to-air missiles to the UAE.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, right, leave an event at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week at Dubai Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 17, 2022 (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

The UAE has been at war in Yemen since early 2015, and was a key member of the Saudi-led coalition that launched attacks against the Iranian-backed Houthis after the group overran the capital of Yemen and ousted the internationally-backed government from power.

Houthi military spokesman Yahia Sarei said the group launched an attack deep in the UAE. He did not provide further details, saying a statement would be released soon.

The Houthis have claimed previous attacks on Abu Dhabi’s airport, as well as the emirate’s Barakah nuclear power plant – claims that Emirati officials have denied in the past.

This undated photograph released by the United Arab Emirates’ state-run WAM news agency, shows the under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi’s Western desert (Arun Girija/WAM via AP, File)

The Houthis have used bomb-laden drones to launch crude and imprecise attacks aimed at Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The group has also launched missiles at Saudi airports, oil facilities and pipelines, as well as used booby-trapped boats for attacks in key shipping routes.

Yemen’s government-aligned forces, aided by the UAE-backed Giants Brigades and with help from Saudi airstrikes, reclaimed the entire southern province of Shabwa from the Houthis earlier this month and made advances in nearby Marib province.

The suspected drone attacks came amid an uptick in tensions between the Houthis and Abu Dhabi and with the rebel group seeing key losses.

Officials said last week that forces of Yemen’s internationally recognized government have reclaimed the entire southern province of Shabwa from Houthis, in a blow to the rebels after government forces earlier this month made significant advances in the country’s south.

On Saturday, the rebels rejected a UN request to release an Emirati-flagged vessel they seized earlier this month, saying it carried weapons.

“The Rwabee vessel was not carrying… toys for children but weapons for extremists,” Houthi official Hussein al-Azzi said.

The Houthis seized the ship on January 3 off the Red Sea port of Hodeida, along with its 11-member crew, and then released a video which they said shows military equipment on board.

The United Arab Emirates has described the Rwabee as a “civilian cargo vessel.”

It said the ship was leased by a Saudi company and that it had been in international waters carrying equipment to be used at a field hospital.

Armed Houthi fighters attend the funeral procession of Houthi rebel fighters who were killed in recent fighting with forces of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, in Sanaa, Yemen, Nov. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

On Friday, the UN Security Council demanded the “immediate release” of the Rwabee and its crew.

It stressed “the importance of freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea,” a strategic route for international shipping.

But Azzi, quoted by the Houthis’ Al-Masirah television, accused the UN of siding with “murderers who violate international laws.”

The Rwabee “belongs to a country participating in the aggression against our people and at war with Yemen, and entered [Yemeni] territorial waters unlawfully,” he said.

The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition which has described the seizing of the Rwabee as an act of “piracy.”

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