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Yemeni rebels announce missile and drone strikes on Saudi capital

By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN AND SARAH DADOUCH | The Washington Post | Published: June 23, 2020

CAIRO – Yemeni rebels carried out drone and ballistic missile strikes on the Saudi Arabian capital, targeting the ministries of defense and intelligence as well as an air base, a rebel military spokesman claimed Tuesday.

The Saudi-led military coalition fighting in neighboring Yemen said it intercepted one ballistic missile targeting Riyadh, but there was no immediate response to the claims that the ministries and air base were hit.

If true, the strikes would mark one of the largest attacks by the rebels on Saudi soil in their more than five-year war. It threatens to further escalate the conflict in the Arab world's poorest nation, where a humanitarian crisis is worsening as the country grapples with the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Since 2015, the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, have been fighting the Saudi-led coalition of regional Sunni Muslim nations, which seek to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The U.S.-backed coalition is also trying to prevent Iran, which is aligned with the Houthis, from gaining influence in the region.

In a televised speech Tuesday, the Houthi military spokesman claimed that "a large number of ballistic and winged missiles and drones" struck Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Intelligence and King Salman air base, as well as military positions in Jizan and Najran, two cities in southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border.

The spokesman warned that the Houthis planned to "carry out more stronger and tougher military operations" in the future until Saudi Arabia stops the "aggression."

The attacks come as Saudi Arabia is trying to defuse tensions in Yemen's south between its two key allies: the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group that now controls many areas of southern Yemen.

For nearly two years, the two have sporadically clashed, even as they fought their collective enemy, the Houthis. In April, the separatists declared self-rule over the southern port city of Aden, the interim seat of the Yemeni government, after a power-sharing deal brokered by Saudi Arabia collapsed.

Tensions further intensified when the separatists recently seized control of Socotra, a Yemeni island south of the Arabian Peninsula. On Monday, Saudi Arabia announced that the two sides have agreed to a cease-fire and will restart negotiations for a power-sharing deal.

But the primary war with the Houthis shows no signs of abating. Clashes have escalated this year in several provinces, trapping civilians in the middle. Last week, the coalition launched two airstrikes in northern Yemen that killed 13 civilians, including four children, according to the charity Save the Children.

"This tragedy is yet more proof that, even though the war in Yemen has dropped off the radar of many people, it is still far from over," said Xavier Joubert, Save the Children's Yemen country director, in an emailed statement. "Millions of children are trapped in a toxic cycle of violence, fear, malnutrition and disease, while bombs are falling and COVID-19 is holding the country in a tight grip, taking children's loved ones at will."

Long before the coronavirus emerged, a humanitarian crisis was steadily worsening this year, as the United States and other donor nations slashed funding. Today, about 24 million people, or 80 percent of the population, rely on aid, and millions are on the edge of starvation.

The war has killed more than 112,000 people, including 12,000 civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a conflict research group. Hospitals and clinics have been pulverized, mostly by airstrikes, leaving only half the nation's health facilities operational.

The United Nations and aid agencies urged the warring sides to declare a cease-fire to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. Now the pandemic is spreading rapidly. Doctors and aid workers believe that thousands of Yemenis are being infected every week and hundreds are dying, even as official figures remain low for various reasons, including a lack of testing and suppression of the virus's impact by Houthi authorities.

"The COVID-19 outbreak in the country should have led to a cease-fire, with all parties - and especially the Yemeni people - focused on fighting the virus," said Joubert. "Instead, not only is the virus still spreading and health systems all but collapsing, children continue to be killed and maimed."

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Dadouch reported from Beirut.

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