BEIRUT, Lebanon — Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked an airport in southern Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, wounding 26 people in the latest escalation of a conflict that threatens to further strain relations between the United States and Iran.
A Houthi official, Mohamed Abdul Salam, said the strike was in retaliation for the Saudi-led coalition’s continued “aggression and blockade,” against Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, which considers the Houthis Iranian proxies, described the attack as a “continuation of the Iranian regime’s support and practice of cross-border terrorism” and vowed to retaliate.
The violence has escalated in the last few weeks, imperiling a brittle cease-fire agreement, and the Saudi-led military coalition has tightened its blockade of a major seaport and the airport in Sana, the Houthi-controlled capital. On Monday, the official Saudi Press Agency reported that its coalition had “intensified” air raids on the Houthis in northwest Yemen.
In response, the Houthis, who receive support from Iran, have carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia in the past few weeks by drone, missile and land.
The war, now in its fifth year, has devastated Yemen, killing thousands of civilians and creating a food shortage that has made millions hungry.
But the recent escalation has also inflamed tensions between Iran and the United States, which is allied with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As the United States and Iran have exchanged increasingly aggressive rhetoric and dialed up their military posturing, the Houthis have attacked Saudi oil installations and airports.
The Saudis have blamed Iran for the attacks.
The Yemen war is at the center of a skirmish in Washington between Congress and the Trump administration, which declared a national emergency to get around Congress’s objections to selling billions of dollars of armsto Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The coalition has repeatedly used American-supplied precision-guided bombs to strike Yemeni civilians.
A bipartisan group of senators is trying to block the deal.
The Houthis have regularly launched missiles into Saudi Arabia since they began battling the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, but had reined in their strikes as peace talks led by the United Nations progressed late last year.
But the fragile peace initiative has stalled, and the Houthis resumed attacking Saudi Arabia over the past several weeks in what it said was retaliation for the Saudis’ failure to curtail the violence.
Houthi drones targeted Saudi drone facilities at another airport on Sunday, a Houthi television channel said, and Saudi air defense systems have intercepted several Houthi missile and drone attacks in the last month, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
A Houthi attack on a Saudi oil pipeline last month forced the Saudis to shut the pipeline temporarily, soon after a mysterious sabotage attack damaged four oil tankers, two of them Saudi, outside the Emirati port of Fujairah.
The Houthi attacks have caused few casualties. The attack on the airport on Wednesday was one of the worst Houthi attacks on Saudi soil yet.
Because of Iran’s support for the Houthis, the Saudis portray the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and its regional enemies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But most analysts say Iran does not directly control the Houthis; instead, they say, it is the most independent of the nonstate groups that receive some degree of Iranian financing and cooperation, a network that also includes Hezbollah, a Lebanese political and military group.
The Saudis first deployed aircraft and troops to attack the Houthis after the group seized Sana from the Saudi-backed government in 2015. Now, after more than four years of fighting, Yemen has been consumed by parallel political, humanitarian and health crises. The peace talks have stumbled. Millions of people are edging closer to famine. A resurgence of cholera has infected more than 364,000 people this year.
For a moment last month, it looked as if the Yemen conflict might have a period of calm. In a major step toward carrying out a partial cease-fire the United Nations brokered in Stockholm in December, the Houthis unilaterally withdrew from three strategic ports on the Red Sea, including Hudaydah, a crucial channel for humanitarian aid.
But clashes broke out soon after, and the coalition has not withdrawn its own forces from the southern and eastern edge of Hudaydah. Fighting in the rest of the country has further undermined the talks. Disagreements over the peace agreement reportedly led the foreign minister of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Khaled al-Yamani, to submit his resignation this week.
Aid groups have warned that the humanitarian situation in Yemen remains dire. In the first five months after the Stockholm agreement was struck, the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a report published Tuesday, the average number of civilians wounded and killed each day rose by a third, with more than 500 people killed. The rate of deaths and injuries caused by land mines has doubled, the group reported; the same rate for small-arms fire has more than tripled.
The aid group said the deal had had only “limited impact” in ensuring aid deliveries were reaching communities on the front lines. Fighting has closed an important land route connecting Sana to Aden, a major southern city, since late April, further impeding aid deliveries.
“The Stockholm agreement remains nothing but ink on paper if warring parties and their backers do not act now,” Mohamed Abdi, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Yemen country director, said in a statement. “Yemen’s best chance of stopping hunger and ending the four-year conflict risks fizzling into another failed peace attempt.”
The attack on Wednesday was not the first time the Houthis had targeted Abha, a Saudi city not far from the southern border with Yemen, but it appeared to be the first time it had drawn blood at the city’s airport.
The Houthis said they had launched a cruise missile at the airport’s control tower, knocking it out of service. The Saudis did not confirm that the control tower was damaged.
The missile struck the arrivals terminal of Abha International Airport, about three hours’ drive north of the kingdom’s border with Yemen, a Saudi spokesman, Col. Turki al-Maliki, said, adding that the military authorities were still investigating the attack.
The wounded included women of at least three nationalities — Saudi, Yemeni and Indian — as well as two Saudi children, he said, adding that eight of the wounded who had moderate injuries were transferred to a hospital.