DUBAI/LONDON: Yemen’s Shiite rebels and their allies fired a ballistic missile deep into Saudi Arabia, an overnight strike they said Friday had targeted an international airport. The kingdom, however, claimed it flew toward the holy Muslim city of Mecca.
Saudi Arabia said the missile was “intercepted and destroyed” 65 kilometers from Mecca.
Angry Saudis soon denounced the missile fire online with hashtags questioning the faith of Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis, as other Sunni Arab leaders in the Gulf linked the attack to Shiite power Iran.
The Saudi military said the missile, fired Thursday night from Yemen’s northwestern Saada province, which borders the kingdom, caused no damage.
The Saudi military has a supply of U.S.-made, surface-to-air Patriot missile batteries it previously has fired at Houthi-launched missiles.
The kingdom’s military said in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency that it immediately targeted the area where the missile was launched in airstrikes.
The Houthis and their allies, including forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have a stockpile of Soviet-era Scud missiles and locally designed variants.
A Houthi ballistic missile fired earlier this month targeted Taif, home to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd Air Base, which also is near Mecca.
What the missile fired Thursday night targeted, however, quickly became a controversy.
The Houthi-controlled satellite news channel Al-Masirah said the Yemeni rebels had fired a Volcano-1 variant missile at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, without mentioning Mecca. That airport is 75 kilometers northwest of Mecca.
The Houthi-controlled SABA news agency said the missile “directly hit” the airport and caused massive destruction, though there were no delays or diversions affecting the airport Friday.
The Saudi military, however, stressed the missile was fired “toward” Mecca, without elaborating – the protection of the holy city is a key pillar of the Saudi royal family’s prestige and the country’s national identity.
Gulf Arab countries allied with Saudi Arabia immediately began condemning the attack, suggesting the Houthis intentionally targeted the Islamic world’s holiest site. Many also immediately linked the attack to Iran, further inflaming regional sectarianism.
“The Iranian regime supports a terrorist group that launched its rockets on Mecca,” Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nayhan wrote on Twitter. “Is this regime Islamic as it claims?”
While analysts suggest Tehran doesn’t have direct control over the Houthis, the U.S. Navy says it is has intercepted Iranian arms heading to the rebels.
In Iran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi dismissed the claims that the Houthis targeted Mecca as “ridiculous.”
“We advise officials of the [United Arab] Emirates and Saudi Arabia not to use Islamic holy sites for their mean political intentions and not to resort to this sort of hypocritical, rift-making and dangerous hyperbole,” Ghasemi was quoted Friday as saying by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency.
Yemen, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has been in the midst of a civil war since September 2014 when the Houthis swept into the capital of Sanaa and overthrew the country’s internationally recognized government.
In March 2015, an Arab coalition began a military campaign against the Houthi forces, saying its mission served in part as a counterbalance to Iran’s influence following its nuclear deal with world powers.
United Nations efforts to strike a peace deal to end the conflict have been slow. The most recent plan apparently sidelines President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Saudi Arabia launched its coalition campaign to restore Hadi’s rule, so that’s likely a deal breaker for the kingdom.
In the meantime, Yemen stands on the brink of famine.
More than 10,000 people have been killed or wounded and 3 million of the country’s 26 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting.
Around 1.5 million children in Yemen are malnourished and half the population lives in hunger, U.N. aid agencies said Friday, three days after pictures of an emaciated Yemeni teenager sparked headlines around the world.
Yemen’s 18-month war has left 370,000 children at risk of severe malnutrition – a condition which needs urgent treatment to prevent a child from dying – the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said at a press briefing in Geneva Friday.
“It is really a dire situation on the ground. When you see mothers who have little to eat themselves and they see their children slipping away, it just breaks your heart,” said World Food Program spokeswoman Bettina Luescher at the briefing. “It really is shocking and horrible to see this in the 21st century.”
Overall, almost half of all children in Yemen are stunted, according to WFP.
Stunting is where children are short for their age, and is a sign of chronic malnutrition.
Luescher said because of diminishing resources and increased needs, the U.N. agency has had to split food aid into smaller rations to reach 6 million people every month.
Around 7 million Yemenis are “desperately in need of food,” she said, and the situation could worsen as the war rages.