A drone strike launched by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthis on Wednesday left a civilian plane ablaze at a Saudi airport, drawing warnings from the United States days after it moved to delist the rebels as terrorists.
Saudi authorities did not immediately report any casualties from the attack, claimed by the Huthis, 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.
The United States condemned the assault and called on the Huthis to “constructively engage” in President Joe Biden’s effort to jumpstart peace negotiations.
“There is no military solution to the war in Yemen. We again urge the Huthis to immediately stop these aggressive acts,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
Saudi state media released images of what it said was wreckage from a drone, apparently showing engine parts and aerial fins scattered across the tarmac of the airport.
“A cowardly criminal terrorist attack launched against Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia by the Huthi 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 Huthi 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 Huthis, who control much of northern Yemen, said they had struck Abha airport with four drones.
Yahya Sarie, spokesman for the Huthis’ 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.
‘Catastrophe’ in 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 Huthis as a terrorist group.
The Huthis 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.
Price, the State Department spokesman, also called on the insurgents to halt the offensive but said the Biden administration would go ahead and lift the terrorist designation.
He defended the move as a way to improve humanitarian access and said it has “absolutely nothing to do with the reprehensible conduct of the Huthis.”
Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the blacklisting in the final days of Donald Trump’s administration, 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 Huthis.
Biden has also halted support to Saudi offensive operations in Yemen’s war, which he called a “catastrophe” which “has to end”.
Lenderking, the veteran US diplomat appointed to boost efforts to end the war, in his meeting with Prince Faisal discussed 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 Huthis 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.