Skip to main content

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at a Yemeni government military parade, in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen, on Jan. 10, 2019.

STRINGER/REUTERS

A bomb-laden drone launched by Yemen’s Shia rebels exploded over a military parade Thursday for the Saudi-led coalition, killing at least six people in a brazen attack threatening an uneasy UN-brokered peace in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

The attack at the Al Anad Air Base showed the unwillingness of Yemen’s Houthi rebels to halt fighting in the civil war, even if it doesn’t violate a peace deal reached last month in Sweden between them and Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

The Houthi attack near the southern port city of Aden with a new drone variant also raised more questions about Iran’s alleged role in arming the rebels with drone and ballistic-missile technology, something long denied by Tehran despite researchers and UN experts linking the weapons to the Islamic Republic.

Story continues below advertisement

The assault shocked the pro-government troops, who carried away the dead and wounded, their fatigues stained with blood. All the victims were government forces, officials said.

“We were under the impression that the coalition has a tight control over airspace and there is no way the Houthis can send drones or planes to attack us in the south,” said Mohammed Ali, a solider in Al Annad 2nd Brigade guarding the parade.

Yemeni army spokesman Mohammed al-Naqib was speaking at a podium during the parade, with photos of Yemen’s president and Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia’s crown princes behind him, when a high-pitched whine drew his attention. A moment later, the drone exploded overhead, pelting him and others with shrapnel.

In the chaotic aftermath, soldiers carried away a severely wounded comrade. A pool of blood collected in front of the plush seats set aside for high-ranking military officials.

At least six people were killed, medical officials said. Among the wounded were Yemeni Military Intelligence Service chief Mohammad Saleh Tamah; Deputy Chief of Staff Saleh al-Zindani; senior military commander Mohammad Jawas; and Lahj Governor Ahmed al-Turki, Yemeni officials said. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

The Houthis immediately claimed the attack in the southern province of Lahj at a base where U.S. special forces once led their own drone war against Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch.

Although the attack did not technically violate a ceasefire negotiated last month for the port of Hodeida, it was hoped that deal might eventually lead to a general de-escalation in the fighting.

“Once again this proves that the Houthi criminal militias are not ready for peace and that they are exploiting truces,” said Moammar al-Eryani, the information minister of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. “Here the Houthi militias are sending Iranians plane carrying explosives to prove to the world that they’re not serious about peace and they only understands the language of force.”

The government described the attack as “a message of blatant defiance to the international community and outright rejection to peace efforts.” It blamed the UN for its “silence and leniency” toward the Houthis, saying that has encouraged the rebels to continue “barbaric and aggressive practices … threatening the regional security.”

Yahia al-Sarei, a spokesman for Houthi-affiliated forces, called the drone attack a response to the coalition’s continuation of “air strikes and targeting innocent civilians and the escalation of the mercenaries across all front lines.”

Yemen plunged into civil war in 2014 when rebels captured the capital of Sanaa. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered the war in March, 2015, as government forces looked poised to lose Aden to the Houthi advance. The United States supported the coalition for years despite its air strikes killing civilians and is only recently beginning to step back after the October killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents.

The two sides last month agreed to a prisoner swap and ceasefire in Hodeida, a port of entry for much of the humanitarian aid to Yemen, to try to provide relief to a population pushed to the brink of famine by the war.

Fighting has largely abated in Hodeida but progress on the withdrawal has been slow. The UN humanitarian aid chief on Wednesday accused the rebels of blocking humanitarian supplies travelling from areas under their control to government-held areas.

Story continues below advertisement

The use of a drone also raised new concerns over Iran’s influence in the conflict. Officials in the coalition have shown journalists a series of drones they said showed a growing sophistication by the Houthis, starting first with plastic foam models that could be built by a hobby kit to one captured in April that closely resembled an Iranian-made drone.

Those drones have been flown into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries, according to the research group Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged.

Iran has been accused by the U.S. and the UN of supplying ballistic missile technology and arms to the Houthis, which Tehran denies.

Houthi media quoted its military describing the drone as a new variant of its Qasef, or “Striker,” drone. The Qasef-2K has been designed to explode at a height of 20 metres and rain shrapnel on its target, according to the Houthis.

A UN panel of Yemen experts issued a report in 2018 noting that the Houthis’ Qasef-1 drone “is virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries.” The Ababil-T can deliver up to a 45-kilogram warhead up to 150 kilometres away.

Such drones remain difficult to shoot down with either light or heavy weapons. Iraqi forces learned from driving out the Islamic State group from northern Iraq, where the extremists would load drones with grenades or simple explosives to target their forces.

Story continues below advertisement

Qasef drones are launched with preprogrammed co-ordinates to follow, unlike other drones where a pilot flies it through a video link, said Jeremy Binnie, a weapons expert who works as the Middle East and Africa editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly.

“They’re like slow missiles. Once they are launched, there is no control,” Mr. Binnie said. “They do have excellent intelligence on the ground. They needed to specifically know when those guys are in the stands to be able to target.”

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter