Plane on fire in Saudi Arabia after airport is 'attacked by drone'

March 29, 2021

A passenger plane has been engulfed in flames in Saudi Arabia after an airport was targeted in a drone attack later claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The group are said to have targeted the Abha International Airport in the south-west of the country, causing a passenger plane on the tarmac to catch fire, according to the kingdom’s state television.

The Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack soon afterwards, with military spokesman Yehia Sareai saying the group used four bomb-laden drones to target Abha airport.

‘This targeting comes in response to the continued aerial bombardment and the brutal siege on our country,’ Sareai said, noting that the Houthis consider the airport a military not civilian target.  

Saudi state television showed damage to a jet at an airport in the wake of the attack today Saudi state television showed damage to a jet at an airport in the wake of the attack today

Saudi state television showed damage to a jet at an airport in the wake of the attack today

This image provided by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Media on February 10, reportedly shows a view of the damaged hull of a Flyadeal Airbus A320-21 This image provided by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Media on February 10, reportedly shows a view of the damaged hull of a Flyadeal Airbus A320-21

This image provided by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Media on February 10, reportedly shows a view of the damaged hull of a Flyadeal Airbus A320-21

No one was hurt in the assault, but the attack threatened to escalate Yemen’s grinding war and the damaged passenger plane at Abha airport served as a powerful reminder of the danger that Houthi rebels pose to Saudi Arabia.

Nearly six years ago, the kingdom launched a bombing campaign that has devastated Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. 

Photographs aired by Saudi state television showed the aircraft, a 3-year-old Airbus A320 flown by low-cost carrier FlyADeal. It appeared the drone had punched a hole through its fuselage, with scorch marks on the metal. 

An anchor on state television said there were no injuries on the ground from the fire. FlyADeal did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

This handout image provided by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Media on February 10 reportedly shows the wreckage of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) that was used in an attack on Abha International Airport This handout image provided by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Media on February 10 reportedly shows the wreckage of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) that was used in an attack on Abha International Airport

This handout image provided by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Media on February 10 reportedly shows the wreckage of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) that was used in an attack on Abha International Airport

‘A cowardly criminal terrorist attack launched against Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia by the Huthi militia,’ state-run Al-Ekhbariya television cited the coalition as saying. 

‘A fire that engulfed a passenger plane due to the Huthi attack on Abha Airport is under control,’ it added. 

The Abha airport, close to the Yemeni border, has been repeatedly targeted in Houthi missile and drone attacks. 

Those attacks have wounded dozens and killed at least one person over recent years. The Saudi-led military coalition did not say what type of weapon was used in the attack.

The Houthis have previously crashed drones into the kingdom’s Patriot missile batteries, most recently on Sunday when the coalition said it intercepted five ‘booby-trapped’ drones. 

Those attacks, often striking near the southern cities of Abha and Jizan, have wounded dozens and killed at least one person in recent years.

As recently as late January, U.S. forces stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh trained Saudi troops on how to counter the threat posed by drones, which can fly low to the ground, evade radar and detonate against targets in the kingdom.

In November 2017, the Houthis even reached Riyadh’s international airport, deep inside the kingdom. No one was hurt in the attack, which marked the first time that a Houthi missile had come so close to a heavily populated center. 

Riyadh is around 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of the border with Yemen. 

The Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack soon afterwards, with military spokesman Yehia Sareai saying the group used four bomb-laden drones to target Abha airport The Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack soon afterwards, with military spokesman Yehia Sareai saying the group used four bomb-laden drones to target Abha airport

The Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack soon afterwards, with military spokesman Yehia Sareai saying the group used four bomb-laden drones to target Abha airport

'This targeting comes in response to the continued aerial bombardment and the brutal siege on our country,' Houthis military spokesman Yehia Sareai said, noting that the Houthis consider the airport a military not civilian target 'This targeting comes in response to the continued aerial bombardment and the brutal siege on our country,' Houthis military spokesman Yehia Sareai said, noting that the Houthis consider the airport a military not civilian target

‘This targeting comes in response to the continued aerial bombardment and the brutal siege on our country,’ Houthis military spokesman Yehia Sareai said, noting that the Houthis consider the airport a military not civilian target

Wednesday’s attack, however, represented the first one to reportedly damaged a civilian aircraft at the facility. 

Flight-tracking websites showed delayed and cancelled flights scheduled to either take off or land at the airport. 

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said in a statement that it will ‘hold the militia accountable in accordance with international humanitarian law,’ referring to the Houthis.

Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, said coalition forces intercepted and destroyed two bomb-laden drones launched by the Houthis toward the kingdom. 

He condemned the assault as a ‘systematic and deliberate attempt to target civilians in the southern region’ of Saudi Arabia.

Pictured: Abha International Airport in the south-west of the country, which was the target of an alleged airstrike carried out by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels Pictured: Abha International Airport in the south-west of the country, which was the target of an alleged airstrike carried out by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels

Pictured: Abha International Airport in the south-west of the country, which was the target of an alleged airstrike carried out by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels

Col. Turki al-Maliki (pictured in 2019) the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, said coalition forces intercepted and destroyed two bomb-laden drones launched by the Houthis toward the kingdom Col. Turki al-Maliki (pictured in 2019) the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, said coalition forces intercepted and destroyed two bomb-laden drones launched by the Houthis toward the kingdom

Col. Turki al-Maliki (pictured in 2019) the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, said coalition forces intercepted and destroyed two bomb-laden drones launched by the Houthis toward the kingdom

In November 2017, the Houthis targeted Riyadh’s international airport in an attack. 

Saudi officials later blamed Iran for providing the missile to the Houthis used in that and other attacks on the kingdom amid its grinding war against the rebels.

Tehran long has denied providing arms to the Houthis, though evidence and United Nations expert reports show weapons linking back to Iran.

Wednesday’s attack, however, represented the first one to reportedly damaged a civilian aircraft at the facility. Flight-tracking websites showed delayed and cancelled flights scheduled to either take off or land at the airport.

At least two Airbus A320s flown by the Saudia, the kingdom’s flag carrier, were on the ground at Abha on Wednesday afternoon, according to the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com. 

Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels are said to have targeted the Abha International Airport (shown on a map) in the south-west of the country, causing a passenger plane on the tarmac to catch fire, according to the kingdom's state television Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels are said to have targeted the Abha International Airport (shown on a map) in the south-west of the country, causing a passenger plane on the tarmac to catch fire, according to the kingdom's state television

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels are said to have targeted the Abha International Airport (shown on a map) in the south-west of the country, causing a passenger plane on the tarmac to catch fire, according to the kingdom’s state television 

Pictured: Satelite view of the Abha International Airport that was attacked on Wednesday Pictured: Satelite view of the Abha International Airport that was attacked on Wednesday

Pictured: Satelite view of the Abha International Airport that was attacked on Wednesday 

Another Airbus A320 on the ground there belonged to low-cost carrier FlyADeal. Both airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said in a statement that it will ‘hold the militia accountable in accordance with international humanitarian law,’ referring to the Houthis. 

Saudi Arabia has been at war with the Houthis in Yemen for nearly six years, a grinding conflict that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. 

Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. 

Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and other countries, entered the war alongside Yemen’s internationally recognised government in March 2015. 

Yemen's war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north. Pictured: A Yemeni man inspects a house that was destroyed in an airstrike carried out during the war by the Saudi-led coalition's warplanes, on February 05 Yemen's war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north. Pictured: A Yemeni man inspects a house that was destroyed in an airstrike carried out during the war by the Saudi-led coalition's warplanes, on February 05

Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. Pictured: A Yemeni man inspects a house that was destroyed in an airstrike carried out during the war by the Saudi-led coalition’s warplanes, on February 05

The Huthis have also resumed an offensive to seize the Yemeni government’s last northern stronghold of Marib, according to a government source, with dozens of casualties on both sides.

The US State Department on Friday said it had formally notified Congress of its intention to revoke a terrorist designation against the rebels, which had been announced in the closing days of the Trump administration.

The delisting move came a day after US President Joe Biden announced an end to American support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.

Biden’s decisions last week mark a reversal of policies by his predecessor Donald Trump, a staunch backer of Saudi Arabia and a fierce opponent of Huthi supporter Iran.

Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the terrorist designation, saying it jeopardised their operations in a country where the majority of people rely on aid and where they have no choice but to deal with the Huthis.

Biden, who has also halted some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, called Yemen’s war a ‘catastrophe’ which ‘has to end’.

The president last week appointed veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as a US special envoy for Yemen, who is expected to boost efforts to end the war.

Biden said Lenderking would support a UN push for a ceasefire and revive talks between the Huthis and the government.

Saudi Arabia, which entered the Yemen conflict in 2015 to bolster the internationally recognised government, has repeatedly been targeted with cross-border attacks.

Last month, it said it had intercepted and destroyed a ‘hostile air target’ heading towards the capital Riyadh. 

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