Saudis intercept Yemeni rebel drones in airport hit

RIYADH • Saudi forces yesterday intercepted five drones launched by Iran-aligned Yemeni rebels, a Riyadh-led military coalition said, in a second assault on an airport in the kingdom's south-west in two days.

The drones targeted Abha airport, where a rebel missile on Wednesday left 26 civilians wounded, and the nearby city of Khamis Mushait, which houses a major airbase, the coalition said in a statement released by Saudi state media.

The latest raid comes amid spiralling regional tensions after the US accused Iran of carrying out attacks that left two tankers ablaze in the Gulf of Oman, the second such incident in a month in the strategic sea lane.

"The royal Saudi air defence force and air force successfully intercepted and destroyed five unmanned drone aircraft launched by Houthi militia towards Abha international airport and Khamis Mushait," the coalition statement said, without reporting any casualties.

The airport was operating normally with no fights disrupted, the statement added.

Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV reported earlier that the Iran-aligned rebels had carried out drone attacks on Abha Airport.

The rebels, who have faced persistent coalition bombing since March 2015 that has exacted a heavy civilian death toll, have stepped up missile and drone attacks across the border in recent weeks.

Wednesday's missile strike hit the civil airport in the mountain resort of Abha, which is a popular summer getaway for Saudis seeking escape from the searing heat of Riyadh or Jeddah.

During a media tour of the airport on Thursday, the Saudi authorities said they had closed part of the arrival lounge after the missile tore a hole in the roof and disrupted flights for several hours. The area was covered in bamboo scaffolding and littered with concrete debris and shards of broken glass.

Two passengers, including an Indian national, who suffered mild injuries recalled pandemonium and screams after a loud explosion triggered a blaze, leaving the lounge covered in smoke.

A Saudi civil aviation official said the authorities were still investigating rebel claims that they had fired a cruise missile at the airport.

If confirmed, that would represent a major leap in the rebels' military capability, experts say.

The official also confirmed that it had not been intercepted by the kingdom's Patriot anti-missile batteries.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of arming the rebels with sophisticated weapons, a charge Teheran denies.

The coalition vowed to "take stern action" to deter the rebels and protect civilians after the missile attack, which drew international condemnation including from the European Union.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2019, with the headline 'Saudis intercept Yemeni rebel drones in airport hit'. Print Edition | Subscribe