In the first such attack of the 10-week-old conflict in Yemen, Shiite Muslim rebels early Saturday launched three Scud missiles toward a large Saudi air base, the insurgents reported. The Saudis acknowledged the firing of one missile, which they said was shot down.
The use of Scud missiles by the Houthi rebels – and U.S.-provided Patriot missiles to deflect them – marked a significant escalation of the conflict, which has killed more than 2,200 people in Yemen and displaced about 1 million others, according to international estimates.
The episode came as the United Nations is struggling to bring the two sides together for talks that are envisioned to begin June 14. Both sides appear to be seeking to shore up their gains in advance of any negotiations.
The Houthis’ Masirah television reported the missile firings, which Saudi Arabian reports said were aimed at the Saudi city of Khamis Mushait and the nearby King Khalid Air Base. The official Saudi Press Agency reported that the attack took place shortly before 3 a.m. local time.
A Saudi-led coalition has been pounding the Houthis and their allies with airstrikes since March 26 in an effort to restore exiled President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to office. Hadi has been sheltering in the Saudi capital since fleeing Yemen in March in the face of a Houthi advance on the strategic port city of Aden.
Saudi Arabia considers the Shiite Houthis to be instruments of the region’s main Shiite power, Iran, and the air war is regarded as a bid to check Iranian power in the region.
Saudi news reports said a retaliatory strike targeted the Scud launcher outside the northern Yemen city of Saada, a home base to the Houthis. Yemen’s capital, Sana, which the rebels seized in September, has been hit in recent days by what residents call some of the heaviest bombardment of the offensive.
The Houthis have gained access to battlefield weaponry through alliances with military units loyal to Yemen’s former strongman, the deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia also accuses Iran of arming the insurgents, which Tehran denies.
The Saudi-led coalition has placed an air and sea embargo on Yemen, causing crippling shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies. Only a few humanitarian shipments have been allowed through.
But 2½ months of airstrikes have failed to break the rebels’ grip on Sana, large parts of Aden or other territory. The United States has been lending logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition.
While the Saudi offensive has been waged by air, the Houthis have been attacking the long Saudi frontier with ground forces and artillery fire. The rebels’ use of Scud missiles demonstrated that the insurgents still have access to sophisticated weaponry despite hundreds of airstrikes targeting bases and weapons caches of the Houthis and their allies.
Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and staff writer King from Istanbul. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.