The 1,000th day of the Yemen civil war was marked by escalating violence including an audacious but unsuccessful ballistic missile attack by Houthi rebels aimed at the Saudi king’s official residence in Riyadh.
It is the third such missile attack mounted by Houthis inside a month and was intercepted by the Saudi air force south of the capital.
Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, claims the missiles are being supplied by Iran and has used the alleged leakage of sophisticated weaponry into Houthi hands to justify a blockade on humanitarian and commercial aid going through the port of Hodeida, the key artery for the delivery of aid and fuel for tens of thousands of Yemenis.
The missile attack may have been a response to Saudi air raids that the UN human rights commission said had led to 136 civilians being killed and another 87 injured in strikes on Sana’a, Saada, Hodeida, Marib and Taez governorates between 6 and 16 December.
“We are deeply concerned at the recent surge in civilian casualties in Yemen as a result of intensified airstrikes by the … coalition, following the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana’a on 4 December,” the human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.
There is growing evidence that the Saudis are mounting an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy in an attempt to bring the deadlocked and multilayered war to a head. The Saudis, in conjunction with its allies the United Arab Emirates, have been trying to form new political alliances inside Yemen to isolate the Houthis, as well as mounting assaults on Houthi positions south of Sana’a.
The Saudis’ ultimate objective may be an attack on the port of Hodeida, a goal that was vetoed by the previous US administration of Barack Obama,. It is more likely to be sanctioned by Donald Trump, whose administration is convinced that Tehran is mounting a strategic play to take over the country in the same way that it holds influence in Lebanon.
The rocket attack was the third in two months, and follows one on Riyadh international airport on 4 November. The Saudi-led coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki immediately blamed Iran, saying: “This aggressive and arbitrary act by the armed Houthi Iranian group proves the continued involvement of the Iranian regime in supporting the Houthis … with the aim of threatening the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
He added: “The control of Iranian-made ballistic weapons by terrorist organisations, including the Houthi armed militia supported by Iran, is a threat to regional and international security, and the targeting of populated cities is contrary to international humanitarian law.”
Mohammad Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the Houthis controlling the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, said the missile was launched towards al-Yamamah palace.
The fighting intensified after Houthi rebels killed Saleh, punishing him for switching to support the Saudis. The Houthis have since hunted down Saleh’s supporters in Sana’a.
The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has said a resolution of the Yemen crisis is his No 1 priority, but British ministers including the prime minster, Theresa May, have three times travelled to the Middle East in the past month to urge the Saudis to lift the blockade on aid, but without success.
Unicef said the blockade had sparked critical shortages and had hit access to safe water across the country. “Water pumping stations serving over 3 million people via public networks in 14 cities are quickly running out of fuel,” it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Yemeni army has reportedly captured the entire 180-mile (300km) highway that connects the town of Marib with Bayhan and Ataq.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said on Tuesday: “Today marks 1,000 days since the beginning of the war in Yemen, a country which is now suffering from the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with a near-famine and the largest cholera outbreak in modern history.”
Last week, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made a presentation in Washington DC, unveiling the remains of two missiles that she said were supplied by Iran to the Houthis.
She said they were evidence of Iran’s interference in Yemen, although other western nations doubt the claims. France has yet to endorse the US claim that the 4 November rocket was supplied by Iran, and is wary that the civil war may be used by the US to mount a campaign to persuade Europe that it needs to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal due to wider Iranian disruption.
On Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents US interests in Tehran in the absence of an American embassy, condemning Haley’s “irresponsible” claim.
“Iran’s strong protest was conveyed to the Swiss ambassador,” said Tehran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
Iran’s ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, condemned Haley’s comments on Tuesday. “Ambassador @nikkihaley exhibited ‘unforgettable’ isolation of his country by veto of the resolution rejecting Trump’s recent recognition of Al-Quds as capital of the Israeli regime. UNGA will address the issue on December 21, expecting a major blow to Trump and US foreign policy,” he tweeted.