Saturday 16 December 2017

Saudi prince blames Iran for missile as Yemen blockade tightened

The rubble of a house destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa (AP)
The rubble of a house destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa (AP)

Saudi Arabia's crown prince has said a ballistic missile launched by Yemen's Shiite rebels was a "direct military aggression by the Iranian regime" as the kingdom ordered the closure of all ports and grounded all humanitarian flights to Yemen.

A Saudi-led military coalition, which has been at war with Yemen's Houthi rebels for more than two years, earlier tightened an air, land and sea blockade in response to the missile, which was intercepted near Riyadh but marked the rebels' deepest strike yet into Saudi territory.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency carried a statement on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's call with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

The kingdom has accused Tehran of supplying the missile fired towards Riyadh's international airport on Saturday night. Iran, which supports the Houthis but denies arming them, says it had nothing to do with the attack.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, urged the Security Council to hold Tehran accountable for a missile she said it had supplied to the Houthis in July. She said the missile used on Saturday may also have been Iranian.

"The United States is committed to containing Iran's destabilising actions and will not turn a blind eye to these serious violations of international law by the Iranian regime," she said.

Human Rights Watch described the indiscriminate targeting of a predominantly civilian airport as an "apparent war crime".

"But this unlawful attack is no justification for Saudi Arabia to exacerbate Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe by further restricting aid and access to the country," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based watchdog.

Later in the day, Yemeni officials said suspected Saudi-led air raids killed at least 23 people in the rebel-controlled northern province of Hajjah. They said the strikes targeted homes of local sheikhs where the head of the Houthis' Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Sammad, was visiting.

The dead included women and children, and at least three people were wounded, they added. Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdel Salam denied Saudi media reports that Mr al-Sammad was killed.

Humanitarian flights to Yemen were grounded and ships ordered to leave, resulting in immediate price hikes on the streets of the rebel-held capital, Sanaa. The move threatens to worsen an already devastating humanitarian crisis in the country, where fighting has killed more than 10,000 civilians and displaced 3 million.

A UN official said the organisation's flights had been cancelled, and it was seeking "to resolve the issue as soon as possible".

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged the reopening of ports for medical supplies. The relief agency said a shipment of chlorine tables used to prevent cholera, which has ravaged Yemen over recent months, did not get a clearance at Yemen's northern border. More supplies are due next week, including 50,000 vials of insulin, ICRC said.

In announcing the closures earlier this week, Saudi Arabia said it would take into consideration continuing aid efforts.

The Saudi-Houthi war dates back to 2014, when the Yemeni rebels and their allies swept down from their northern heartland and seized Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognised government to relocate to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led coalition controls Yemen's air space but has made little progress on the ground, where the fighting has been in stalemate for more than a year.

The tiny African nation of Djibouti has become the main transit point for humanitarian flights to Yemen. With the latest measures, however, flights are no longer being given clearance to leave, according to Doctors Without Borders.

The Houthis have vowed to continue targeting Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, a key member of the coalition.

Colonel Aziz Rashed, an army spokesman with a unit allied with the Houthis, warned travellers and travel agencies to stay away from Saudi and Emirati airports as they are considered "legitimate targets".

He claimed his military experts could develop missiles with ranges exceeding 1,500 kilometres (932 miles).

AP

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric urged the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels to allow humanitarian aid into Yemen through all ports and airports and warned that "any further shocks to imports of food and fuel may reverse recent success in mitigating the threat of famine".

Mr Dujarric called on the rival parties in the three-year Yemen conflict "not to escalate the situation further" and to take precautions to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure.

"All parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate safe, rapid, unhindered humanitarian access to all people in need, through all ports and airports," he said.

AP

Press Association

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