Saudi airstrikes hit Yemen's Houthis after attack on oil depot
At least 8 killed as targets struck in rebel-held cities of Sanaa and Hodeida
A Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on the capital and a strategic Red Sea city, officials said Saturday. At least eight people were killed.
The overnight airstrikes on Sanaa and Hodeida — both held by the Houthis — came a day after the rebels attacked an oil depot in the Saudi city of Jeddah, their highest-profile assault yet on the kingdom.
Brig.-Gen. Turki al-Malki, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, said the strikes targeted "sources of threat" to Saudi Arabia, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
He said the coalition intercepted and destroyed two explosives-laden drones early Saturday. He said the drones were launched from Houthi-held civilian oil facilities in Hodeida, urging civilians to stay away from oil facilities in the city.
Footage circulated online showed flames and plumes of smoke over Sanaa and Hodeida. Associated Press journalists in the Yemeni capital heard loud explosions that rattled residential buildings there.
Fuel supply station among targets
The Houthis said the coalition airstrikes hit a power plant, a fuel supply station and the state-run social insurance office in the capital.
A Houthi media office claimed an airstrike hit houses for guards of the social insurance office, killing at least seven people and wounding three others, including women and children.
The office shared images it said showed the aftermath of the airstrike. It showed wreckage in the courtyard of a social insurance office with the shattered windows of a nearby multiple-story building.
In Hodeida, the Houthi media office said the coalition hit oil facilities in violation of a 2018 cease-fire deal that ended months of fighting in Hodeida, which handles about 70% of Yemen's commercial and humanitarian imports. The strikes also hit the nearby Port Salif, also on the Red Sea.
Al-Malki, the coalition spokesperson, was not immediately available for comment on the Houthi claims.
The escalation is likely to complicate efforts by the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, to reach a humanitarian truce during the holy month of Ramadan" in early April.
It comes as the Gulf Cooperation Council plans to host the warring sides for talks late this month. The Houthis however have rejected Riyadh — the Saudi capital where the GCC is headquartered — as a venue for talks, which are expected to include an array of Yemeni factions.
The Houthis also announced Saturday a unilateral initiative that included a three-day suspension of cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, as well as fighting inside Yemen. They demanded an end to the coalition air and sea blockade on their territories before engaging in negotiations.
Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, doubted that ongoing efforts will succeed in bringing a peaceful settlement to the grinding war in the near future, given that international attention is now focusing on other crises including the war in Ukraine.
"I really wouldn't buy into any optimism we'll see diplomatic progress in 2022," he said. "It's pretty clear that all parties are still looking for ways to either win outright or cause significant damage to their rivals."
Yemen's brutal war erupted in 2014 after the Houthis seized Sanaa. Months later, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a devastating air campaign to dislodge the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government.
The conflict has in recent years become a regional proxy war that has killed more than 150,000 people, including over 14.500 civilians. It also created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
The Houthis' Friday attack came ahead of a Formula One race in the kingdom on Sunday, raising concerns about Saudi Arabia's ability to defend itself against the Iranian-backed rebels.
Jeddah hosting Formula One race
Friday's attack targeted the same fuel depot that the Houthis had attacked in recent days — the North Jeddah Bulk Plant that sits just southeast of the city's international airport and is a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca.
In Egypt, hundreds of passengers were stranded at Cairo International Airport after their Jeddah-bound flights were cancelled because of the Houthi attack, according to airport officials.
The kingdom's flagship carrier Saudia announced the cancelation of two flights on its website. The two had 456 passengers booked. A third cancelled flight with 146 passengers was operated by the low-cost Saudi airline Flynas.
Some passengers found seats on other Saudi Arabia-bound flights and others were booked into hotels close to the Cairo airport, according to Egyptian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because there were not authorized to brief media.