Twelve people were injured by falling debris Thursday as the Saudi military blew up a Yemeni rebel drone targeting an airport close to the border, officials said.
Fragments fell to the ground after the interception of the drone over Abha International Airport, which has previously been targeted in similar assaults by the Iran-backed insurgents.
The Huthis claimed responsibility for the attack in a tweet, saying they had targeted an airport “used for military action against Yemen” and warning citizens to “stay away” from such sites.
The United States was quick to condemn the attack, and pledged to work with Saudi Arabia to hold the Huthis “accountable”.
The Huthis, fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015, have frequently launched drone attacks at targets in the kingdom including airports and oil installations.
In recent weeks, they have also launched deadly cross-border attacks for the first time against fellow coalition member, the United Arab Emirates, after suffering a series of battlefield defeats at the hands of UAE-trained pro-government forces.
“Saudi defence forces destroyed a drone launched towards Abha International Airport,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
The SPA said “12 civilians” were hurt when the unmanned aircraft was intercepted, including citizens of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as two Saudis.
In response, the Saudi-led coalition said it would strike positions from which the Huthis launch drones in Sanaa, the rebel-held capital of Yemen.
“We ask civilians in Sanaa to evacuate civilian sites used for military purposes for the next 72 hours,” it said, quoted by SPA.
“As a result of the interception process, some shrapnel of the drone was scattered after its interception inside the internal perimeter of the airport,” coalition spokesman Brigadier General Turki al-Maliki told SPA.
He said Abha was a “civilian airport that is protected under international humanitarian law” and accused the rebels of a “war crime”.
President Joe Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the “United States strongly condemns today’s terrorist attack”.
On Wednesday, Biden reaffirmed in a phone call with Saudi King Salman the “US commitment to support Saudi Arabia in the defence of its people and territory” from Huthi attacks.
UAE on Alert
Border provinces of Saudi Arabia have come under frequent drone or missile attack by the rebels, in what the Huthis say is retaliation for a deadly bombing campaign carried out by coalition aircraft against rebel-held areas.
Most have been safely intercepted by Saudi air defences, but in late December an attack on Jizan province on the Red Sea coast saw two people killed and seven wounded.
In December, the coalition said the Huthis had fired more than 400 ballistic missiles and launched over 850 attack drones at Saudi Arabia in the past seven years, killing a total of 59 civilians.
The UAE has also been on alert since a drone and missile attack killed three oil workers in Abu Dhabi on January 17.
The attack was the first deadly assault on the UAE claimed by the Huthis, opening a new phase in the Yemeni war and puncturing the Gulf state’s image as a regional safe haven.
The UAE-trained Giants Brigades has this year inflicted heavy losses on the Huthis, disrupting their efforts to seize Marib city, the government’s last major stronghold in the rebel-dominated north.
Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2014 when the Huthis seized Sanaa, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene the following year to prop up the internationally recognised government.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed directly or indirectly in the conflict, while millions have been displaced in what the UN calls the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.
On Thursday, the Norwegian Refugee Council said civilian deaths and injuries in the war have almost doubled since UN human rights monitors were controversially removed in October.
“The removal of this crucial human rights investigative body took us back to unchecked, horrific violations,” NRC’s Yemen country director Erin Hutchinson said.