SANA’A/TEHRAN – The Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen launched an operation early Friday against targets north of the port city of al-Hodeidah, prompting Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels to warn of a dangerous escalation of the conflict.
The coalition said in a statement published by official Saudi news agency SPA that the operation resulted in the destruction of four installations used by the rebels to assemble remote-controlled boats and sea mines.
The air strikes were necessary to preserve “the freedom of maritime navigation,” read the statement, in which coalition and Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki accused “terrorist Houthi militias” of launching ballistic missiles, drones and remote-controlled, booby-trapped boats from that area.
But Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdul Salam said on Twitter that the intense raids in al-Hodeidah posed a severe threat to a truce deal that had been hammered out during United Nations-brokered peace talks in Sweden last December.
The Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government reached an agreement in December on a truce in al-Hodeidah, a strategic western port city that is home to 600,000 people and the point of entry for most commercial imports and humanitarian aid arriving in Yemen.
Although the ceasefire has not always been observed, it has served to de-escalate the situation and facilitate the ability of human rights groups to deliver aid to Yemen’s war-ravaged population.
The Saudi-led operation comes about a week after more than 20 drones and cruise missiles were launched at oil installations in Saudi Arabia, an attack that forced the world’s biggest oil exporter to shut down half of its crude production.
The Houthi rebels – a Shia militia engaged in a protracted civil war against the internationally-recognized Yemeni government – claimed responsibility for that attack.
But Saudi Arabia says evidence shows the drones and missiles arrived from the north and both Riyadh and the United States say the attack was orchestrated by Iran.
The UN says the conflict in Yemen, which erupted in late 2014 when the Houthis expelled pro-government forces from Sana’a and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, constitutes the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis.
The conflict took on a new dimension in early 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began leading an international Arab coalition in support of Hadi’s government.
More than 75 percent of the roughly 30 million Yemenis need some type of humanitarian assistance and more than a third have gaps in their diets.
Separately, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, hailed the efforts the country has made to promote peace in recent years and accused the US of being indifferent to the suffering of the Yemeni people and concerned only about attacks on oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
“Arab blood vs. Arab oil / A primer on U.S. policy,” Zarif wrote.
“4 yrs of indiscriminate bombardment of Yemen, 100,000 dead Yemenis, 20M malnourished Yemenis, 2.3M cholera cases = carte blanche for culprits,” he said. By contrast, “Retaliatory Yemeni strike on oil storage tanks = unacceptable ‘act of war.’”
The White House, which supports the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen, is to study potential military options against Iran on Friday.
An influential Iranian general, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, on Friday vowed a wide-ranging response by the Islamic nation in the event of a US attack.
“If the Americans think up any plots, we’ll respond from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean,” Safavi was quoted as saying by semi-official news agency Tasnim.