(CNSNews.com) – The costly civil war in Yemen took a dangerous new turn at the weekend when the Saudis said they intercepted a ballistic missile heading for the kingdom’s second-busiest airport, and accused Iran of responsibility.
The Saudis, who are leading a military coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognized government, said in a statement that Iran’s alleged provision of missiles to its Shi’ite proxies in Yemen constituted military aggression that could rise to “an act of war.”
They warned that the kingdom “reserves its right to respond to Iran in the appropriate time and manner, in accordance with international law and based upon the right of self-defense.”
The conflict in the region’s least stable country is widely seen as a proxy war between the region’s leading Sunni and Shi’ite powers (who are also backing opposing forces in the civil war in Syria.)
The Saudi military said it intercepted and destroyed the missile, which it said boasts a range of more than 900 kilometers (560 miles), over the King Khaled International Airport near Riyadh on Saturday. No casualties or damages were reported.
The Saudi-led coalition said the debris of the missile, like that of one fired that targeted a Saudi oil refinery last July, “has confirmed the role of Iran's regime in manufacturing these missiles and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen for the purpose of attacking the kingdom, its people, and vital interests.”
President Trump backed the Saudis’ take on the incident. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Japan Sunday, he said, “A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia.”
“And our system knocked it down,” he added, in reference to U.S.-supplied Patriot air defense missiles. “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.”
Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami denied Iranian responsibility for the missile fired at the Saudi airport, and accused Iran’s enemies led by the U.S. of blaming it “for any event in the region.”
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari – the target last week of new U.S. Treasury sanctions – also denied Trump’s charge.
“We don’t have the means and possibility to send missiles to Yemen. These missiles have been manufactured by the Yemenis and their military industries,” he said, calling Trump’s claims the latest in a series of “baseless remarks” the president has leveled at Iran.
Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col. Turki Al-Maliki told a briefing the missiles fired by the Houthis did not originate from the Yemen Army arsenal but were supplied by Iran and smuggled to the militia – disassembled – through the port of Al-Hodeidah, west of the capital Sana’a.
He said the Houthis have now launched 78 missiles at Saudi Arabia, including one in July aimed at Makkah, since the coalition began in campaign in 2015.
Al-Maliki claimed that the Houthis are the first outlawed terrorist group to have ballistic missile capabilities.
The Saudis are now offering large rewards for information leading to the arrest of several dozen Houthi leaders.
The coalition also announced the temporary closure of all Yemeni air and sea ports and ground crossings in a bid to prevent Iran from smuggling weaponry to its Houthi allies.
“The coalition’s command considers the Iranian regime’s action in supplying the Houthi militias that it commands with these missiles to be a blatant violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit nations from arming these militias,” it said, pointing in particular to a resolution adopted in 2015 that imposed an arms embargo on Houthi leaders. (Russia, Iran’s closest ally on the Security Council, did not veto the measure, but did abstain.)
The coalition launched a military campaign including airstrikes in March 2015, at the request of the embattled government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Iran denies arming the Houthis, while acknowledging it provides the militia with political support.