A Saudi-led military coalition mounted air strikes on Yemen’s Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on Sunday after intercepting a flurry of drones and missiles launched by the Iran-backed rebels, state media reported.
The exchange marked a new escalation in Yemen’s six-year conflict between the coalition-backed Yemeni government and the Huthi insurgents, despite a renewed US push to end the hostilities.
The coalition raids triggered huge explosions that sent plumes of smoke rising in the sky over Sanaa, according to AFP correspondents on the ground. The rebels reported seven air strikes on the city.
“The military operation targets Huthi military capabilities in Sanaa and a number of other provinces,” the coalition was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.
That came after the coalition said it had intercepted a total of 12 drones and two ballistic missiles launched by the rebels on Sunday, a sharp uptick in cross-border attacks on the kingdom.
The coalition said the drones were aimed at “civilian” targets in Saudi Arabia, SPA reported, without specifying the locations.
The two intercepted missiles targeted the southern city of Jizan, the coalition added, without stating whether there were any casualties or damage.
The rebels did not immediately claim responsibility for the cross-border attacks, but they have stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, while they escalate an offensive in Yemen to seize the government’s last northern stronghold of Marib.
In a statement after its strikes, the coalition said that targeting civilians in the kingdom was a “red line”, adding that the Huthis’ actions “will not lead to an imposition of a political settlement”.
The latest escalation comes as Washington resumes efforts for a resolution to the grinding conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions, according to international organisations.
– ‘Open the port’ –
The surge in violence has also hit Taez, Yemen’s third largest city, besieged for years by the Huthis.
Seven children were injured by an artillery shell in the city on Sunday as they left school, Save the Children said, warning of an “unacceptable increase in civilian casualties”.
The United Nations says Yemen’s war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
On Sunday, David Gressly, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, was in the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a key entry point for both humanitarian aid and commercial goods.
“I need to understand the situation of food, fuel, health, water, education and other needs of the people,” he told reporters.
“What we would want to see is the port to be open, not only for fuel but other commodities.”
The UN had warned of a “death sentence” against Yemen after a donor conference last week yielded less than half the funds needed to prevent a devastating famine.
It appealed for $3.85 billion to pay for urgently needed aid, but just $1.7 billion was offered at the virtual pledging conference.
“After over a year of Covid throughout the world, the economies are weak and those who are giving funding find it more difficult to give money,” said Gressly.
“So we need to find a way to go beyond humanitarian assistance to help the economy come back.”
– Escalation in fighting –
The escalation comes after the United States last month delisted the Huthis as terrorists and stepped up efforts to resolve the six-year conflict.
The terror designation, imposed in the final days of the Trump administration, had been widely criticised by aid groups who warned it would hamper efforts to alleviate a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
“The removal of the Huthis from the list of terrorist groups has been interpreted in a hostile way by the militia,” SPA cited the coalition as saying.
The statement added that coalition “victories” in Marib had prompted the rebels to step up attacks on the kingdom.
On Saturday, Yemeni government sources said fierce fighting between pro-government forces and the rebels in oil-rich Marib had killed at least 90 fighters on both sides over 24 hours.
Years of bombing have failed to shake the rebels’ hold on Sanaa, and they have steadily expanded their reach in the country’s north.
US President Joe Biden has halted support to Saudi offensive operations in Yemen’s war, which he called a “catastrophe” that “has to end”.
But he has also reiterated US support for Saudi Arabia in defending its territory.