Saudi Arabia shot down a Scud missile fired into its territory by rebels in neighboring Yemen, marking an escalation in the two-month conflict as the weapons were used for the first time.
The warhead was bound for the southwestern town of Khamis Mushait when it was intercepted with a Patriot missile, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a statement by coalition forces. The launcher was located in the Yemeni city of Saada and destroyed by an airstrike, it said.
The rebels’ use of the missile shows the Houthis are “keen on taking the battle out of Yemen into Saudi” territory, Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risk in the Middle East, said by phone from London. “Whatever the Houthis have access to in terms of Scuds and similar weapons is not significant, but it’s enough to cause a headache to the Saudis.”
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, leads a coalition of countries bombing the Houthi rebels in a bid to restore to power President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis are being aided by ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and have taken over large swaths of the country, a small oil producer but one located on an important oil transit route.
“This is a very powerful message,” said Michael Elleman, a consulting senior fellow for regional security cooperation at IISS-Middle East. “This sends a signal to Iran that we have the ability to intercept missiles, and we can do it successfully.”
The flight time for a Scud missile is usually about four to four and a half minutes, which probably meant the Saudis were anticipating such an attack, Elleman said.
Satellite imagery shows the Houthis repositioned some of the Yemeni army’s 300 Scud missiles and directed them at Saudi Arabia, a Gulf diplomatic official said in March. Air strikes against the fighters destroyed 21 of the weapons, he said.
Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, spent billions of dollars over the past decade boosting their missile defenses with the latest upgrades of the Raytheon Co.-built Patriot and other anti-missile systems.
Two senior Houthi officials flew to Moscow on Saturday after a visit to the Omani capital, Muscat, Houthi-backed Al Masirah television reported. It gave no details about the purpose of the visit, which came days after Yemen’s government in exile said it agreed to attend United Nations-brokered peace negotiations in Geneva.
The talks, earlier expected to start on June 10, will now begin on June 14, the UN said Saturday in an e-mailed statement.
The previous attempt by the UN to convene talks in Geneva last month failed when Hadi’s government refused to attend unless the Houthis withdrew from cities and disarmed. Hadi has agreed to send a delegation to the new talks.
The UN also repeated its call for a humanitarian pause in Yemen to allow aid to reach those in need. The suffering of the Yemeni population, it said, is increasing dramatically.