Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Wednesday targeted Abha International Airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia, causing a civilian plane on the tarmac to catch fire, the kingdom’s state television reported, an attack that threatens to escalate Yemen’s grinding war.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control, Saudi state-owned Al-Ekhbariya TV said, without offering word on possible casualties from the assault. Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack soon afterward, with military spokesman Yehia Sareai saying the group used four bomb-laden drones to target Abha airport.
“This targeting comes in response to the continued aerial bombardment and the brutal siege on our country,” Sareai said, noting that the Houthis consider the airport a military not civilian target.
Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen, said the forces intercepted two bomb-laden drones launched by the Houthis toward the kingdom.
He condemned the assault as a “systematic and deliberate attempt to target civilians in the southern region” of the country.
Since 2015, the Houthis battling the Saudi-led military coalition have repeatedly used ballistic missiles and drones to target international airports, along with military installations and critical oil infrastructure, within Saudi Arabia.
Those attacks, often focused on the southern cities of Abha and Jizan, have wounded dozens and killed at least one person over recent years.
In November 2017, the Houthis even reached Riyadh’s international airport, deep inside the kingdom.
No one was hurt in the attack, which marked the first time that a Houthi missile had come so close to a heavily populated center. Riyadh is around 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of the border with Yemen.
Saudi officials later blamed Iran for providing the missile to the Houthis used in that and other attacks on the kingdom amid its grinding, yearslong war against the rebels.
Tehran long has denied providing arms to the Houthis, though evidence and United Nations expert reports show weapons linking back to Iran.
Wednesday’s attack represented the first one to reportedly damage a civilian aircraft at the facility. Flight-tracking websites showed delayed and cancelled flights scheduled to either take off or land at the airport.
At least two Airbus A320s flown by the Saudia, the kingdom’s flag carrier, were on the ground at Abha on Wednesday afternoon, according to the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com. Another Airbus A320 on the ground there belonged to low-cost carrier FlyADeal. Both airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said in a statement that it will “hold the militia accountable in accordance with international humanitarian law,” referring to the Houthis.
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The U.S. Air Force’s Central Command, based at Al-Udeid Air Base in neighboring Qatar, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saudi Arabia has been at war with the Houthis in Yemen for nearly six years, a grinding conflict that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and other countries, entered the war alongside Yemen’s internationally recognized government in March 2015.