RIYADH, Feb 5, (Agencies): Saudi air defences intercepted a ballistic missile fired at the kingdom by Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels on Monday, state media reported.
The attack was launched from Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada, a Houthi stronghold, and “intercepted” at 7:23 local time (0423 GMT), Colonel Turki al-Maliki told state news agency SPA. Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition supporting the government in Yemen, said the missile was headed toward the city of Khamis Mushait — about 160 kms (100 miles) north of the border. Riyadh had warned that “Iranian-manufactured ballistic weapons” threatened the kingdom’s security following an attack it said was intercepted near Riyadh airport in November. Maliki on Monday accused the Houthis of “repeatedly targeting densely populated cities” and accused the kingdom’s regional rival Iran of delivering the weapons to the insurgents.
The coalition has been blacklisted by the UN for the killing and maiming of children in air raids on Yemen. The United States, which backs the Saudi campaign against the Houthis, has also accused Iran of being at the origin of the ballistic missiles, a charge denied by Tehran. Russia said last week that evidence presented by the US was inconclusive, signalling it would oppose a bid to slap UN sanctions on Tehran.
More than 9,200 people have been killed since the Saudi-led alliance joined the Yemen war in March 2015, according to the World Health Organisation, triggering what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Yemeni Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman was suspended from an Islamist party allied with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi after she accused the Saudi-led coalition that backs him in the country’s civil war of acting as occupiers. Karman won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in Arab Spring protests that ousted authoritarian President Ali Abdullah.
More recently she has ramped up public criticism of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accusing them of backing a campaign to divide Yemen by supporting southern separatists against the internationally recognised government. Speaking at the Warwick Economics Summit at Britain’s Warwick University over the weekend, Karman said Saudi Arabia and the UAE were driven by a “reckless adventurism” when they intervened in Yemen in 2015 after Iran-aligned Houthi forces drove Hadi into exile. In an earlier Twitter message, she wrote: “Saudi Arabia and UAE took advantage of the (Houthi) militia coup in Sanaa to launch a very ugly occupation and an uglier influence in Yemen.”
The Islah party, regarded as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a terrorist organisation, tried to distance itself from Karman and order her suspended from its ranks. “Tawakkol Karman’s statements do not represent the Islah party and its policies, and are not in line with the party’s positions,” a statement posted on Islah’s website said.
“Therefore, the general secretary has decided to freeze her membership according to the party’s status.” Karman, who left Yemen after Houthi militia seized the capital Sanaa in a series of military advances that began in late 2014, responded on her Twitter account by describing Islah leaders as “prisoners and slaves” of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Tensions between Islah and southern separatists have been rising since Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, announced a boycott of Qatar in June last year over allegations that Doha backs Islamist militants.
Qatar denies the charges. Islah, eager to ease the worries of Gulf Arab states about its Islamist leanings, has sought to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood denies accusations from conservative Arab governments of involvement in terrorism, saying it seeks democracy by peaceful means only. The southern separatists want to restore the independent state of South Yemen, which merged with North Yemen in 1990.
They have fought the Houthis alongside Hadi’s forces, but rose up last week and seized control of the southern port of Aden after Hadi refused to sack his prime minister, whom the separatists accuse of mismanagement and corruption. In the rocky highlands outside of Yemen’s rebel-held capital, it quickly becomes clear how the Arab world’s poorest country remains mired in a stalemated civil war. Soldiers and militiamen loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government describe having a tantalizing view on a clear day of Sanaa’s international airport from the moonscape mountains.
The price is a steady barrage of incoming fire on the exposed hillside from Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, that makes any further advance treacherous, even with the aid of Saudi-led airstrikes. The nearly three-year civil war, pitting the Saudi-led coalition against the rebels, has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced 2 million and helped spawn a devastating cholera epidemic — and yet the front lines have hardly moved. “In mountainous areas like this it’s difficult. The American Army struggled with that in Afghanistan,” Yemeni Maj Gen Nasser Ali al-Daibany told Associated Press reporters who were granted access to the front lines on a tour organized by the Saudi-led coalition. “But for us this won’t slow us down … because our boys, our fighters, were trained in these mountains, so they are the sons of this area.” The comparison to Afghanistan, where the US war is now 16 years old, feels apt. Yemen has also seen decades of conflict, first with the 1960s civil war that ended North Yemen’s monarchy.
Fighting between Marxist South Yemen and the north followed. Yemen unified in 1990, but resentment persisted under 22 years of kleptocratic rule by Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring protests ultimately forced Saleh to resign, but he continued to wield power behind the scenes and maintained the loyalty of many armed forces commanders. In 2014 he formed an alliance with the Houthis — who he had gone to war with in the past — and helped them capture the capital, Sanaa. Saudi Arabia entered the conflict the following year, at the head of an Arab coalition heavily supported by the United Arab Emirates. They have sought to restore the internationally recognized government, led by Hadi, who is based in Saudi Arabia and whose rule is largely confined to the southern port city of Aden. Riyadh views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, and both Saudi Arabia and the United States say Tehran has provided the long-range missiles the rebels have fired into the kingdom. While Tehran supports the Houthis, it denies arming them.
The Saudi-led coalition has waged a devastating air campaign, repeatedly striking markets, medical facilities and civilian targets. The UN has attributed over half of reported child civilian casualties in the conflict to the coalition, and calls Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. As the war has dragged on, it has become more muddled, with internal conflicts erupting on both sides. Saleh broke with the Houthis last year and appeared to switch sides, only to be gunned down by the rebels. In recent days, southern separatists backed by the UAE have clashed with forces loyal to Hadi in Aden. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, long seen as one of the most sophisticated offshoots of the global terror network, has exploited the chaos to regroup. “Yemen has become in many senses a ‘chaos state,’ a place where the central government has either collapsed or lost control of large segments of the territory,” Chatham House expert Peter Salisbury recently wrote. “Yet ‘chaos’ is a relative term. Although Yemen indeed appears to be chaotic from the outside, it contains its own internal logic, economies and political” powers.