Middle East

Saudi intercepts missiles over curfew-locked Riyadh, border city

Saudi air defenses intercepted ballistic missiles over Riyadh and a city along the Yemen border late Saturday, leaving at least two civilians wounded in the curfew-locked capital amid efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Multiple explosions shook Riyadh in the attack, which the Saudi-led military coalition blamed on Yemen’s Iran-aligned Huthi rebels who have previously targeted Saudi cities with missiles, rockets and drones.

It was the first major assault on Saudi Arabia since the Huthis offered last September to halt attacks on the kingdom after devastating twin strikes on Saudi oil installations.

“Two ballistic missiles were launched towards the cities of Riyadh and Jizan,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing the coalition fighting the rebels.

Their interception sent shrapnel falling on residential neighborhoods in the cities, resulting in two civilian casualties in Riyadh, a civil defense spokesman said in a separate statement released by SPA.

There was no immediate comment from the rebels.

At least three blasts rocked the capital — under a 15-hour coronavirus curfew — just before midnight, according to AFP reporters. Jizan, like many other Saudi cities, faces a shorter dusk-to-dawn curfew.

The assault comes despite a show of support on Thursday by all of Yemen’s warring parties for the United Nations’ call for a ceasefire to protect civilians from the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government and the rebels all welcomed an appeal from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for an “immediate global ceasefire” to help avert disaster for vulnerable people in conflict zones.

The call coincided with the fifth anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which was launched to shore up the internationally recognized government against the Huthi rebels.

– Escalating conflict –

Yemen’s broken healthcare system has not so far recorded a case of the COVID-19 illness, but aid groups have warned that when it does hit, the impact will be catastrophic. The country is already regarded as facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia is also scrambling to limit the spread of the disease at home. The kingdom’s health ministry has reported 1,203 coronavirus infections and four deaths from the disease so far.

Fighting has recently escalated again between the Huthis and Riyadh-backed Yemeni troops around the strategic northern districts of Al-Jouf and Marib, ending a months-long lull.

The warring sides had earlier shown an interest in de-escalation, with a Saudi official saying in November that Riyadh had an “open channel” with the rebels with the goal of ending the war.

The Huthis also offered to halt all missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia after strikes on its oil installations last September, which were claimed by the rebels but widely blamed on Iran, despite its denials.

But those efforts seem to have unravelled. Observers say the rebels may have used the lull to bolster their military capabilities.

Riyadh had expected a quick victory when it led a multi-billion dollar intervention in 2015 to oust Huthi rebels, under a newly assertive foreign policy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But the costly intervention has failed to uproot the rebels from their northern strongholds, while pushing the Arab world’s poorest nation into a humanitarian crisis.

Image: AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE Riyadh, like the rest of the country, is currently under a 15-hour curfew, a measure designed to slow the advance of the coronavirus

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