Yemeni tribesmen from the Popular Resistance Committees, loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed President, disembark from a pickup truck carrying an anti-aircraft gun as they park on a desert road in Beihan, in the Shabwa province, on December 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULLAH AL-QADRY
Saudi Arabia said it shot down a ballistic missile Tuesday over Riyadh fired from Yemen by Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who announced that the target was the official residence of King Salman.
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley described the strike as bearing “all the hallmarks of previous attacks using Iranian-provided weapons” as she announced Washington would be discussing options for Security Council action against Tehran.
The audacious attack aimed at the heart of Saudi power follows the downing of another missile last month near Riyadh airport that triggered the tightening of a Saudi-led blockade on hunger-stricken Yemen.
For the past three years, Saudi Arabia has led a military campaign involving air strikes and ground troops against the Huthis, who seized the Yemeni capital from the internationally recognised government in 2014.
The kingdom accuses the Shiite rebels of being a proxy for its arch foe Iran, which vehemently denies arming the insurgents.
An AFP correspondent in Riyadh heard a loud explosion at 1050 GMT, shortly before King Salman was due to oversee the unveiling of the Saudi annual budget.
“The missile was aimed at populated residential areas in the Riyadh area, and — thank God — was intercepted and destroyed south of Riyadh without any casualties,” the official Saudi Press Agency quoted a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition as saying.
“The possession of Iranian-manufactured ballistic weapons by terrorist organisations, including the Iran-backed Huthi militia, is a threat to regional and international security,” Turki al-Maliki added.
More than 8,750 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government’s fight against the Huthis in 2015, triggering what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“In exchange for a thousand days of bombardment with internationally banned weapons, there has been a thousand days of steadfastness in which our people have demonstrated that their resolve will not be broken,” rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Huthi said in a speech Tuesday.
“Today our people reached the heart of Riyadh – the government palace – with a ballistic missile.”
The missile attacks, which could further escalate the Saudi-led military campaign, underscore how the raging Yemen conflict is increasingly spilling across the border.
US seeks Iran sanctions
The US and Saudi Arabia previously accused Iran of supplying the missile involved in last month’s attack to the rebels, with Haley presenting to the UN last week what she called “undeniable” evidence that the missile was “made in Iran”.
Her comments went beyond the findings of a UN investigation which reached no firm conclusion on whether the missile came from an Iranian supplier, saying only that it had a “common origin” to some Iranian designs.
Haley said Tuesday’s strike should be a “flashing red siren for this council” as she announced a list of possible measures that immediately drew strong reservations from Russia, which has friendly relations with Tehran.
“We could explore sanctions on Iran in response to clear its violations of the Yemen arms embargo,” said Haley, who also suggested targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard for action.
But she stopped short of directly accusing Iran of being behind the latest missile.
The US State Department later issued a statement that said Washington was “deeply disturbed by aggressive Huthi actions supported by Iran’s provision of advanced weapons, which threaten regional security and prolong the Yemen conflict”.
The Pentagon added it was working “to fully understand what took place and to ensure that our Saudi partners have the resources they need to defend their territory”.
Intensified coalition strikes
The Huthi rebels last month warned that they considered “airports, ports, border crossings and areas of any importance” in Saudi Arabia, as well as its ally the United Arab Emirates, as legitimate targets.
Saudi-led air strikes have intensified since the December 4 killing of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the hands of the Huthis after his alliance with the rebels collapsed.
The UN human rights office said Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” by the surge in civilian casualties due to intensified coalition air strikes.
Pro-government forces have also stepped up attacks on the rebels and last week retook the Red Sea town of Khokha.
A medical source in Yemen said Tuesday that 23 Huthi fighters had been killed in clashes with Saudi-backed government forces over the past day in Hodeida province on the Red Sea coast.
A military source said at least 14 pro-government fighters were killed in the same period.