Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a volley of missiles at Saudi Arabia on Tuesday with one reaching as far as the Saudi capital, as violence flared across the country following the expiry last month of a ceasefire brokered during the coronavirus pandemic.
Two large explosions sounded above Riyadh at dawn while smoke billowed into the sky during the barrage, which the Houthis claimed had “pounded” the Saudi defence ministry and a military base.
The Saudi-led military coalition, which has fought the Houthis for more than five years in support of the country’s recognised government, said it had shot down one missile, but made no reference to targets. The coalition also said it shot down three missiles headed towards Najran and Jizan along with a number of drones.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, condemned the attacks, saying they “cast further doubt on [Houthi] claims to want peace”.
Violence has soared in Yemen since the expiry of a six-week ceasefire between Gulf-backed government forces and the Houthis, which was prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Houthis have repeatedly fired on Saudi Arabia during the conflict, but had not targeted Riyadh since late March, when Saudi Arabia said it shot down a missile and two residents were injured by falling debris in the capital.
Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sarea said in a televised speech that on Tuesday the group had fired several missiles and drones targeting military headquarters and centres in Riyadh, including the defence ministry and King Salman Air Base. Attacks were also launched against military sites in the southern Saudi cities of Najran and Jizan, the Houthis said.
Colonel Turki al-Malki, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, called the attack on Riyadh a “deliberate hostile action designed to target civilians”.
Mr Raab said that, with more than 1 million Yemenis believed to have contracted coronavirus, it was now “more vital than ever that the Houthis cease their hostilities and allow the UN-led humanitarian response to get on with saving Yemeni lives”.
Fighting has also erupted in the south of Yemen involving anti-Houthi factions once allied to the Gulf coalition, further deepening the country’s woes.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said its trauma hospital in the southern port of Aden received more than 20 patients on Tuesday, injured during shelling in nearby Abyan province where clashes were ongoing between forces of the recognised government and its one-time ally, the southern separatists.
Riyadh tried to broker a truce between the two sides on Monday after southern separatists seized control of Yemen’s remote Socotra island over the weekend. After losing control the Saudi-backed government condemned the action as a coup.
The south’s Transitional Council (STC), which declared self-rule in that part of Yemen in April, announced it had seized government facilities and military bases on the sparsely populated archipelago. Nicknamed the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, Socotra sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The government, which is led by president Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, condemned the action as a “full-fledged” coup and accused STC forces of attacking government buildings in “gang-style behaviour”.
Socotra governor Ramzi Mahroos, meanwhile, accused coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of turning a blind eye.
Members of the STC defended their actions, telling The Independent it was government forces that had violated the ceasefire, in what they claimed was “an irresponsible escalation”.
Tribesmen in the neighbouring mainland province of Mahra, who are opposed to the separatist movement, said the STC and its Abu Dhabi backers were “implementing their mission” to sweep the south of the country.
Sources told Reuters that the STC had denied receiving Riyadh’s attempted truce agreement. Saudi Arabia wants to prevent yet another fracture in Yemen’s increasingly complex war, which has been locked in military deadlock for years.
With only half the country’s health facilities still functioning, the country had already limped through the worst outbreak of cholera in modern history, before being hit by Covid-19.
Yemen has been ripped apart by fighting since late 2014 when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa, forcing the recognised government to flee.
Fearing Iran’s encroachment in the region, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi launched a bombing campaign to reinstate president Hadi in March 2015. Five years on there is little hope of an end to a conflict which has killed more than 100,000 people and sparked what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The conflict has also spawned a war within a war, with southern separatists, trained and armed by Abu Dhabi, demanding an independent south.