Gulf Arab forces fighting Yemeni rebels suffered one of the most significant blows since the start of their campaign in March, with 45 troops from the United Arab Emirates killed in the oil-rich Marib province.
The U.A.E.’s official news agency WAM reported the higher death toll late Friday, saying more troops died from injuries sustained, after officials had earlier said that 22 soldiers had been killed. The deaths were caused by a missile that struck an arms depot, Anwar Gargash, U.A.E. minister of state for foreign affairs, said on Twitter. The rebels said the ballistic missile attack also damaged armored vehicles.
Mounting casualties will test the will of Saudi and U.A.E. rulers to extend their campaign after helping the internationally recognized government retake parts of southern Yemen. The two Sunni-ruled nations say the war is a proxy conflict with Iran, which they accuse of backing the rebels, known as Houthis. Western diplomats have expressed skepticism about the level of Iranian involvement.
Though Friday’s death toll is the highest from a single incident for its troops, the U.A.E. isn’t likely to end its involvement, said Mustafa Alani, director of the National Security and Terrorism Studies Department at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
“The U.A.E. leadership has determined that this is a decisive and strategic battle,” Alani said by phone. “It has also made it clear that it won’t back down, irrespective of the economic and human losses.” Gargash said the deaths makes the U.A.E. “more determined to finish the job.”
The Gulf nation declared three days of mourning, WAM reported. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander of the U.A.E.’s army, said on Twitter that “to defeat the rebellious and aggressive militias who caused all destruction and corruption in Yemen is a goal we shall continue to uphold.”
U.A.E. planes pounded Houthi positions on Friday, hitting groups of rebel fighters and weapons depots and inflicting heavy casualties, WAM said.
The Saudi-led coalition in March started bombing Yemen, which lies adjacent to some of the world’s busiest oil shipping routes, in an attempt to restore President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi to power after the Houthis captured the capital, Sana’a, prompting him to flee.
The intervention has escalated the conflict in Yemen, drawing criticism from human rights groups who say it is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis there.
‘Swallowing the Invaders’
The U.A.E. has also sent ground troops to support the coalition’s attempt. Bahrain, another member of the coalition, said five of its troops were killed while taking part in defending Saudi Arabia’s southern border, the state-run Bahrain’s news agency reported Friday. It wasn’t clear if they were killed in the same attack in Marib.
Funerals for the U.A.E. soldiers will be held from Saturday, according to the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television.
The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency posted pictures of plumes of smoke rising from what it said was the site of the explosion in the desert.
“Most of those killed are Emiratis,” Houthi official Yehia Al-Qahoom said on Twitter. “The sands of Marib are swallowing the invaders and their mercenaries.”