DUBAI – The Saudi-led coalition on Friday launched a military operation north of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah against what it described as “legitimate military targets,” an incident that could aggravate regional tensions after a weekend attack on Saudi oil installations.
The coalition said it had destroyed four sites used in assembling remote-controlled boats and sea mines to help protect the freedom of maritime navigation.
“These sites are used to carry out attacks and terrorist operations that threaten shipping lines and international trade in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the southern Red Sea,” coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki said in a statement.
The Houthi movement in Yemen, which had claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities, said through its Masirah TV that the coalition had breached the U.N. agreement reached in Sweden.
The Western-backed, Sunni Muslim coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Yemen Iran-aligned Houthi group after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognized government in Sanaa in late 2014.
The Hodeidah cease-fire and troop redeployment agreement was reached last year at peace talks in Sweden, as a trust-building measure to pave the way for talks to end the war, but stalled for months before the Houthi withdrawal from three Red Sea ports.
Malki added that the Houthis used Hodeidah to “launch ballistic missiles, drones, booby-trapped and remote-controlled boats, as well as for indiscriminate deployment of sea mines.”
The coalition had called on civilians to stay away from the targeted sites and asserted that the military operation was conducted in a way that follows international humanitarian law and that it took the necessary precautionary measures.
“We had forgotten the raids and fear and slept for months in peace. … But tonight the sounds of explosions and planes frighten us as they continue to fly across the city’s skies,” resident Mohammed Abdullah told Reuters.
On Thursday night, the coalition said it had intercepted and destroyed an explosives-laden boat launched from Yemen by the Houthi group.
The Houthis, who have threatened to widen attacks on Saudi Arabia, have in the past targeted vessels off Yemen, which lies on one side of the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the world’s most vital oil tanker routes.
The incident comes as the United States and Saudi Arabia consider responses to the assault on Saudi oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh blame on common foe Iran. Tehran denies any involvement.
The United States said on Thursday it was building a coalition to deter Iranian threats.
Iran has warned U.S. President Donald Trump against being dragged into a war in the Middle East and said it would meet any offensive action with a crushing response.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Trump, who has ordered more sanctions on Iran, wants a peaceful solution to the crisis.
He was speaking after talks with Saudi and Emirati leaders over the strike that Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Tehran.
Pompeo appeared to soften his tone on Thursday after talks with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, which is Riyadh’s main Arab ally.
“We are here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution. That’s my mission, that’s what President Trump certainly wants me to work to achieve and I hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it that way,” Pompeo told reporters.
He did not provide details about the coalition. The United States has however been trying to create a global maritime security alliance since attacks on oil tankers in Gulf waters, which Washington also blamed on Iran.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Britain and Bahrain have said they will participate. Iraq said it would not join, and most European countries have been reluctant to sign up for fear of stoking regional tensions.
Pompeo described his proposed coalition as “an act of diplomacy.” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, told CNN on Thursday that the Islamic Republic “won’t blink” if it has to defend itself against any U.S. or Saudi military strike, which he said would lead to “all-out war.”
Pompeo on Wednesday met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has called the assault on oil plants a “test of global will.”
Riyadh has displayed what it described as remnants of 25 Iranian drones and missiles used in the strike, saying it was evidence of Iranian aggression.
Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir said on Thursday the attacks were an “extension of the Iranian regime’s hostile and outlawed behavior” and called on the international community to “shoulder its responsibilities and take a firm stance towards Iran’s criminal behavior.”
“Complacency with the Iranian regime will only encourage it to commit more acts of terrorism and sabotage in our region and around the world,” Jubeir tweeted.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged all countries in the Gulf to sit down for talks to defuse tensions and said groundless accusations against Iran over the attacks were inflaming tensions, Interfax news agency reported.
Oil prices, which soared following the attack, steadied after Saudi Arabia pledged to restore full oil production by the end of September.
Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which is battling a Saudi-led military coalition, claimed responsibility for the assault on two Saudi oil plants, including the world’s largest processing facility. U.S. and Saudi officials rejected the claim, saying the attack had not come from the south.
Saudi-led forces launched a military operation north of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah on Friday, saying it had destroyed four sites used in assembling remote-controlled boats and sea mines to help protect the freedom of maritime navigation.