Yemeni Houthis have claimed a drone attack on the United Arab Emirates that killed three people and injured six, marking a potential escalation of the seven-year conflict just weeks after the rebel movement seized a Emirati-flagged ship in the Red Sea.
The Iranian-allied Houthi fighters, also known as Ansarullah, claimed “a substantive attack” on the UAE, which reported the deaths of two Indian nationals and a Pakistani in fires and explosions on Monday involving three petroleum tankers and an airport construction site in Abu Dhabi.
The flare-up in violence underscores the UAE’s continued involvement in the Yemen conflict nearly two years after Abu Dhabi claimed an exit.
“The UAE condemns this terrorist attack by the Houthi militia on areas and civilian facilities on Emirati soil...(It) will not go unpunished,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “The UAE reserves the right to respond to these terrorist attacks and criminal escalation.”
The UAE’s official WAM news agency reported that the six injured suffered “mild to moderate” wounds.
Unverified footage on social media showed a thick plume of black smoke billowing from what appeared to be the industrial Musaffah area near the storage facilities of oil firm ADNOC.
“Initial investigations found parts of a small plane that could possibly be a drone at both sites that could have caused the explosion and the fire,” Abu Dhabi police said in a statement, adding there was no “significant damage”.
The Houthi’s military spokesman said the group launched a military operation “deep in the UAE”. Its chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam, whom Houthi-run media said was currently visiting Tehran, warned the UAE against “tampering in Yemen”.
While the Houthis regularly launch attacks on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, drone or missile attacks on the UAE have grown rare in recent years after several alleged attacks on Emirati energy and transport infrastructure in 2017 and 2018.
With the help of Iran and the allied Lebanese Hezbollah movement, Houthis have refined and advanced the accuracy and range of their drones and missiles over the years.
The war in Yemen has been described as among the worst ongoing humanitarian disasters in the world, with hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, and much of the country on the brink of famine.
The UAE, a staunch security partner of the United States, United Kingdom and France, as well as a major component of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, signalled months ago that it was seeking to exit the conflict, even holding a “withdrawal” celebration in early 2020.
But battlefield reports in recent weeks have highlighted the extent of the UAE’s entanglement in the ongoing war.
The Houthis seized a UAE-flagged ship at the start of January, and said there were weapons and armoured vehicles aboard despite the Saudi-led coalition insisting the vessel was only carrying humanitarian supplies. The rebels have refused to release the ship, the Rabwee, or its 11-member crew.
The backdrop for the latest spike in tensions in the Arabian Peninsula is the ongoing battle for the key energy-producing regions of central Yemen.
The UAE-backed Giants Brigade militia have joined in the fight for Marib and Shabwa provinces, helping tilt the balance of power against the Houthi forces, which had previously been on the offensive. The Houthis lost control of Shabwa a week ago.
“The UAE has recently escalated its aggression against Yemen, by sending forces under its command … to attack the districts of Shabwa governorate,” said a report on Monday published by the Houthis’ al-Masirah news organisation.
“It has also escalated its aggression by transferring weapons and military equipment to militias affiliated with the aggression through Yemeni territorial waters.”
Saudi-led forces on 15 January warned civilians to stay off certain roads in central Yemen ahead of expected ground and air operations.
The United Nations’ Yemen troubleshooter Hans Grundberg last week warned the Security Council both sides in the conflict were “doubling down on military options.”
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