Yemen’s Houthi rebels said they were behind suspected drone strikes in the United Arab Emirates that killed three people on Monday as they intensified fighting in a 7-year civil war spreading across the wider Middle East.
The Iranian-backed Houthis said they had targeted Abu Dhabi in retaliation for a recent UAE escalation in Yemen, in which Emirati-backed militants last week inflicted an unexpected defeat on the Houthi province of oil-rich province of Shabwa. The emirates have intensified their efforts recently in support of local militants in Yemen in a Saudi-led coalition that had suffered defeat.
Three people were killed and six injured in explosions on Monday that showed the Houthis are willing to strike in the heart of a country seen as the region’s main hub for international business.
If it is confirmed to be a drone attack, as suspected by local police, Monday’s attack is the latest in a series of attacks that US, European and Israeli defense authorities say illustrate Iran’s and its allies’ rapidly growing ability throughout the Middle East to build and deploy drones, which changes the security equation in the region.
In the past year, the Houthis have developed advanced versions of their drones capable of long-range attack with markedly improved precision, according to a draft report from the UN panel of experts seen by The Wall Street Journal.
UAE officials said they are investigating the incident. Abu Dhabi police said it had spotted small flying objects “possibly belonging to drones.”
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Gulf state, did not immediately blame anyone for the attack. While the Houthis claimed responsibility, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias last week also threatened to attack the United Arab Emirates with drones and missiles for allegedly uniting Sunni politicians against them and manipulating the Iraqi election.
The attacks caused an explosion that involved three fuel vehicles in Musaffah, an industrial area west of Abu Dhabi and a fire at a construction site at Abu Dhabi airport, according to UAE state media. The dead were two Indian nationals and a Pakistani, according to state media in the UAE
Nasr al-Din Amir, deputy chief of the Houthi Ministry of Information, said several attacks were planned.
“The goal of this operation is to respond to their escalation and deter them, and if the Emirates continues their escalation, we will continue to respond with our military operations against the UAE,” he said.
Monday’s attack is the latest sign that Yemen’s seven-year war is flaring up again as opposing sides accelerate military operations and threaten a dangerous new spiral of violence.
The attacks took place on a day when energy industry leaders from around the world gathered in Abu Dhabi for an annual conference, and during a planned visit to the UAE by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Roads near the attack in Mussafah were closed to the public.
While Houthis have repeatedly targeted Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones, claiming to attack the United Arab Emirates in 2018, Houthi long-range drone and missile attacks do not usually cause deaths.
Despite being part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen fighting Iranian-backed Houthis, the UAE has for years played a less prominent role in the region’s conflicts. Two years ago, the United Arab Emirates announced that it was withdrawing from the Yemeni war, leaving only a small contingent of forces.
But in recent days, the emirates have increased support for local militias, said militant fighters and U.S. officials. United Arab Emirates measures include air strikes and the relocation of militia fighters from the coast to support the ranks of Shabwa, say local Emirati-backed militia members and Houthis. The United Arab Emirates has for years supported fighters with medical treatment of wounded troops and salaries.
These efforts last week helped local militias push the Houthis out of Shabwa, giving them the biggest loss on the battlefield in years. The conquest of Shabwa challenges the rebels’ efforts to conquer the Marib Oil Center, the last city under government control in northern Yemen.
A US official said the United Arab Emirates had worked with the Saudis to unite the divided Yemeni forces while making a joint push to reverse the Houthi advance.
“There has been an increase in coordination and Emiratis is giving a little more muscle as part of the Saudi-led coalition,” the official said.
The Yemeni conflict had its origins in the hopeful uprising in the Arab Spring, but in 2014 the uprising turned into a full-blown civil war when the Houthis, a Zaydi-shia militant group, stormed the capital San’a. Foreign powers intervened when Saudi Arabia in 2015 formed a coalition to expel the Houthis, who in turn were backed by Iran.
The UN estimated in November that the death toll from Yemen’s war would reach 377,000 by the end of 2021, as the war has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The Houthis have also escalated operations on and off the Yemeni battlefield. The militant group has in recent weeks seized a ship under the Emirati flag off the coast of Yemen, detained Yemeni workers at the closed US embassy in San’a and arrested two UN staff members. A confidential UN report says thousands of weapons have been seized along smuggling routes to Yemen from Iran.
A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the UN denied allegations of arms smuggling, saying “Iran has not sold, exported or transferred weapons, ammunition or related equipment to Yemen in violation of Security Council resolutions.”
A US official said Iran was not suspected of involvement in Monday’s attack. “The Houthis are on their own,” the U.S. official said. “The Emirates have bombed them.”
The Saudi-led coalition has resumed offensive operations against Houthi forces and expanded its efforts to target advisers from Iran and Lebanon who Saudi officials say are helping Yemeni fighters on the battlefield.
The capture of Shabwa, which prompted Monday’s Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi, is strategically important. By conquering the province, the Emirati-backed forces, known as the Giants Brigades, cut off supply lines for Houthi militants trying to take over the oil-rich Marib city east of San’a. Control of Shabwa also ensures access to the Gulf of Aden and the liquefied natural gas plant in Balhaf, where a small contingent of Emirati soldiers are still stationed.
To capture Shabwa, Emirati commanders moved dozens of local militia fighters from the west coast into the province, where they clashed with the Houthis, including in populated areas, a fighter jet from the Giants Brigades said.
Emirati engagement marks a shift on the battlefield after Abu Dhabi in 2019, stung by growing opposition among U.S. lawmakers to the war and worried it could become a target for Iranian retaliation, moved to pull down almost all of its forces from Yemen.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dion Nissenbaum at email@example.com
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