Saudis intercept missile fired from Yemen that came close to Riyadh

Saudi border guards keep watch along the border with Yemen in the al-Khubah area.
Saudi border guards keep watch along the border with Yemen in the al-Khubah area.PHOTO: AFP

SANAA, YEMEN (NYTIMES) - A ballistic missile fired from Yemen came close to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday (Nov 4) and was intercepted by the Saudi military over the city's international airport, the Saudi Defence Ministry said.

Coming on a day of increasing regional tensions, it was the first time such an attack had come so close to the centre of Riyadh in the two years since Saudi Arabia started a war against the Houthi rebel group that toppled Yemen's government.

Yemen's Houthi-controlled Defence Ministry said its forces had targeted the airport with a long-range missile called the Burqan 2H in response to an attack by the Saudi-led coalition Wednesday that killed 26 people in a hotel and a nearby market.

But the Saudi-led coalition suggested the attack had been ordered by Iran, which it said backs the Houthis.

"This act of aggression against Riyadh proves involvement of one of the terror states supporting the Houthis," the coalition was quoted as saying in a tweet from Al Hadath, a Saudi-run news channel.

US President Donald Trump commented on the missile interception during comments on US military hardware on Sunday. 

“A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia... and our system knocked the missile out of the air. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re seeing it all over the world,” he told reporters on Air Force One en route to Tokyo.

Several hours after the missile attack, the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, was hit by the worst barrage of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in more than a year.

About 12 strikes were heard hitting the Defence Ministry downtown and other targets mostly on the city outskirts. According to news alerts from the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Interior Ministry was hit for the first time, along with an intelligence agency built with US help to track Yemen's Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The exchange of fire took place on a day when the region was on edge over the growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Earlier, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned from a unity government that includes Iran's Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Speaking from Riyadh, he blamed Iran for interfering in Arab affairs. Iran and Hezbollah read the move as pressure from Saudi Arabia, Hariri's patron, to isolate them as part of a campaign to curb Iranian influence.

The Yemeni Defence Ministry has claimed several times to have fired a Burqan 2 missile at Saudi Arabia, which has acknowledged at least one previous strike.

Residents and travelers in Riyadh reported a loud explosion Saturday. The Twitter account of King Khalid International Airport issued a message saying airport operations had not been affected.

Videos from the scene showed people rushing to airport windows, smoke and what appeared to be flashes or fires on the ground.

One showed red flares rising towards the sky.

Some pro-Saudi commenters in Yemen and Saudi media suggested that the Houthis could have fired the missiles on behalf of Iran or Hezbollah.

Military analysts at IHS Jane's have written that the Houthis' emerging use of ballistic missiles offers some support for American, Saudi and Israeli allegations that Iran is aiding them with parts or technology, but add that it would be difficult for Iran to ship whole missiles to Yemen. Another possibility, the analysts say, is that the missiles were acquired by Yemen from North Korea before the current conflict.

In Sanaa, jets were heard overhead and residents reported airstrikes. Ali Hassan, a taxi driver, said that roads leading to the defense ministry downtown were closed by the police.

"I saw smoke rising from the ministry," he said, adding that he also saw an airstrike in another area where a weapon depot was located.

The ministry is in a densely populated area, a World Heritage site known as Bab al-Yemen, which has been targeted before. Saudi-led coalition jets could be heard over Sanaa. The bulk of airstrikes in retaliation reportedly targeted the outskirts of the city.

The Houthis' news channel, Al-Masirah, said on Twitter: "We repeatedly affirmed that capitals of aggression states won't be spared from our ballistic missiles in retaliation for the constant targeting of innocent civilians."