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Saudi Arabia blames Houthis for missile over capital, drone attack on south

Riyadh says Iran-allied Yemen rebels launched ballistic missile, 4 explosive UAVs, causing no casualties or damage

Saudi Arabia's air defenses intercepted a missile attack over its capital on February 27, 2021. (screenshot: Twitter)
Saudi Arabia's air defenses intercepted a missile attack over its capital on February 27, 2021. (screenshot: Twitter)

Saudi Arabia said Saturday it intercepted a missile attack over its capital and bomb-laden drones targeting a southern province, the latest in a series of airborne assaults it has blamed on Yemen’s rebel Houthis.

The Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen’s years-long war announced the Iran-allied Houthis had launched a ballistic missile toward Riyadh and three booby-trapped drones toward the province of Jizan, with a fourth sent toward another southwestern city and other drones being monitored. No casualties or damages were initially reported.

The rebels did not immediately claim responsibility for any of the attacks. They frequently strike the kingdom’s southern regions and have previously targeted Riyadh with missiles and drones.

AFP correspondents and residents of the Saudi capital reported hearing multiple loud explosions. The night sky lit up with a bright flash following the interception of a missile, state television footage showed.

The attack comes amid sharply rising tensions in the Middle East, a day after a mysterious explosion struck an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. That blast renewed concerns about ship security in the strategic waterway that saw a spate of suspected Iranian attacks on oil tankers in 2019.

Saudi Arabia is also hosting a Formula E championship on the outskirts of Riyadh, which state media said was attended by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The state-owned Al-Ekhbariya TV broadcast footage of what appeared to be explosions in the air over Riyadh. Social media users also posted videos, with some showing residents shrieking as they watched the fiery blast pierce the night sky, which appeared to be the kingdom’s US Patriot missile batteries intercepting the ballistic missile.

Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the Houthis were trying in “a systematic and deliberate way to target civilians.”

The US Embassy in Riyadh issued a warning to Americans, calling on them to “stay alert in case of additional future attacks.” Flight-tracking websites showed a number of flights scheduled to land at Riyadh’s international airport diverted or delayed in the hour after the attack.

As Yemen’s war grinds on, Houthi missile and drone attacks on the kingdom have grown commonplace, but only rarely cause damage. Earlier this month the Houthis struck an empty passenger plane at Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Abha airport with a bomb-laden drone, causing it to catch fire.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition has faced widespread international criticism for airstrikes in Yemen that have killed hundreds of civilians and hit non-military targets, including schools, hospitals and wedding parties.

In this Sept. 21, 2019 file photo, Shiite Houthi tribesmen hold their weapons as they chant slogans during a tribal gathering showing support for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

The Houthis overran Yemen’s capital and much of the country’s north in 2014, forcing the government into exile and months later prompting Saudi Arabia and its allies to launch a bombing campaign.

The Houthis have escalated cross-border attacks on the kingdom even after the United States moved to delist the rebels as terrorists and stepped up efforts to de-escalate the six-year conflict.

The designation, imposed by the previous US administration of Donald Trump, had been widely criticized by aid organizations, who warned it would hamper their efforts to alleviate a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

US President Joe Biden halted support to Saudi offensive operations in Yemen’s war, which he called a “catastrophe” that “has to end.” But he also reiterated US support for Saudi Arabia in defending its territory.

Alongside the cross-border attacks, the Houthis are pressing ahead with a deadly offensive to seize the Yemeni government stronghold of Marib, where some of the country’s richest oil fields are found.

Years of bombings have failed to shake the rebels’ hold on the capital Sanaa, and they have steadily expanded their reach in the country’s north.

Yemen’s grinding conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions, according to international organizations, sparking what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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