A Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on the capital and a strategic Red Sea city, officials said Saturday. At least seven people were killed.
The overnight airstrikes on Sanaa and Hodeida – both held by the Houthis – came a day after the rebels attacked an oil depot in the Saudi city of Jiddah, their highest-profile assault yet on the kingdom.
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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett denounced the Houthi attack, saying it is "further proof that Iran’s regional aggression knows no bounds."
In a reference to one of Tehran's key demands in talks on a new agreement with world powers on its nuclear program, Bennett said the Houthi attack "reinforces the concern" of removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' terror designation in the United States.
Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the strikes targeted “sources of threat” to Saudi Arabia, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency or SPA.
He said the coalition intercepted and destroyed two explosives-laden drones early Saturday. He said the drones were launched from Houthi-held civilian oil facilities in Hodeida, urging civilians to stay away from oil facilities in the city.
Footage circulated online showed flames and plumes of smoke over Sanaa and Hodeida. Associated Press journalists in the Yemeni capital heard loud explosions that rattled residential buildings there.
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The Houthis said the coalition airstrikes hit a power plant, a fuel supply station and the state-run social insurance office in the capital.
A Houthi media office claimed an airstrike hit houses for guards of the social insurance office, killing at least seven people and wounding three others, including women and children.
The office shared images it said showed the aftermath of the airstrike. It showed wreckage in the courtyard of a social insurance office with the shattered windows of a nearby multiple-story building.
Later on Saturday, the Houthis said they were suspending missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia for three days, in a peace initiative it said could be a lasting commitment if the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen stopped air strikes and lifted port restrictions.
The group also announced a three-day suspension of ground offensive operations in Yemen, including in the gas-producing region of Marib, said Mahdi al-Mashat, the head of the Houthis' political office, in a speech broadcast on television.
Lifting restrictions imposed by the coalition's warships on Yemen's Red Sea ports has been a major Houthi condition for a cease-fire. Saudi Arabia says there is no blockade on the ports and that it is only preventing arms smuggling.
Saturday's initiative would last if the coalition reopened the ports and stopped its air strikes, Mashat said, adding that the group would extend the suspension of ground operations if Saudi Arabia announced a withdrawal of foreign troops from Yemen and stopped backing local militias.
It is unlikely that the kingdom would agree to such conditions, as Riyadh seeks an inclusive cease-fire simultaneously with reopening the ports and Sanaa airport.
In Hodeida, the Houthi media office said the coalition hit oil facilities in violation of a 2018 cease-fire deal that ended months of fighting in Hodeida, which handles about 70 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports. The strikes also hit the nearby Port Salif, also on the Red Sea.
Al-Malki, the coalition spokesperson, said it targeted drones being prepared in Hodeida to be launched on the Kingdom. He accused the Houthis of using civilian infrastructure, such as Hodeida's ports and the Sanaa airport, to launch attacks on Saudi oil facilities. He called on the rebels to remove weapons from such sites, according to SPA.
A UN mission overseeing the Hodeida deal voiced concern about the airstrikes and urged warring sides to “maintain the civilian nature of the ports and avoid damage to civilian infrastructure.”
The escalation is likely to complicate efforts by the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, to reach a humanitarian truce during the holy month of Ramadan” in early April.
It comes as the Gulf Cooperation Council plans to host the warring sides for talks late this month. The Houthis however have rejected Riyadh – the Saudi capital where the GCC is headquartered – as a venue for talks, which are expected to include an array of Yemeni factions.
Yemen’s brutal war erupted in 2014 after the Houthis seized Sanaa. Months later, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a devastating air campaign to dislodge the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government.
The conflict has in recent years become a regional proxy war that has killed more than 150,000 people, including over 14,500 civilians. It also created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.