Saudi forces intercept missiles over Riyadh, Jizan

RIYADH • Saudi air defences intercepted ballistic missiles over Riyadh and a city along the Yemen border last Saturday, leaving at least two civilians wounded in the curfew-locked capital amid efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Multiple explosions shook Riyadh in the attack, which the Saudi-led military coalition blamed on Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels who have previously targeted Saudi cities with missiles, rockets and drones.

It was the first major assault on Saudi Arabia since the Houthis offered last September to halt attacks on the kingdom after devastating strikes on Saudi oil installations.

"Two ballistic missiles were launched towards the cities of Riyadh and Jizan," the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing the coalition fighting the rebels.

Their interception sent shrapnel falling on residential neighbourhoods in the cities, resulting in two civilian casualties in Riyadh, a civil defence spokesman said.

There was no immediate comment from the rebels.

At least three blasts rocked the capital - then under a 15-hour coronavirus curfew - just before midnight. Jizan, like many other Saudi cities, faces a shorter dusk-to-dawn curfew.

The assault came despite a show of support last Thursday by all of Yemen's warring parties for the United Nations' call for a ceasefire to protect civilians from the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government and rebels all welcomed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' appeal for an "immediate global ceasefire" to help avert disaster for vulnerable people in conflict zones.

The Yemen government condemned the attack, which it said undermined efforts to scale down the conflict amid the virus outbreak.

NO PEACE, ONLY WAR

This militia lives only on wars and doesn't understand peace language.

YEMENI INFORMATION MINISTER MOAMMAR AL-ERYANI, in a tweet about the Houthi militia.

Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani said in a tweet that the strikes also confirmed the "continued flow of Iranian weapons" to the Houthi militias.

"This militia lives only on wars and doesn't understand peace language," he said.

Yemen's broken healthcare system has not so far recorded a case of the Covid-19 illness, but aid groups have warned that when it does hit, the impact will be catastrophic. The country is already seen as facing the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia is also scrambling to limit the spread of the disease at home. The kingdom's Health Ministry has reported 1,203 coronavirus infections and four deaths.

Fighting has recently escalated again between the Houthis and Riyadh-backed Yemeni troops around the strategic northern districts of Al-Jawf and Marib, ending a months-long lull.

The warring sides had earlier shown an interest in de-escalation, with a Saudi official saying last November that Riyadh had an "open channel" with the rebels with the goal of ending the war.

The Houthis also offered to halt all missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia after twin strikes on its oil installations last September.

But those efforts seem to have unravelled. Observers say the rebels might have used the lull to bolster their military capabilities.

Riyadh had expected a quick victory when it led a multibillion-dollar intervention in 2015 to oust Houthi rebels, under a newly assertive foreign policy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But the costly intervention has failed to uproot the rebels from their northern strongholds, while pushing Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, into a humanitarian crisis.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline 'Saudi forces intercept missiles over Riyadh, Jizan'. Print Edition | Subscribe