Yemeh's Houthi rebels say that the airport is a legitimate target as it has been used as a base for the Saudi coalition's widely condemned bombing campaign in Yemen.

Smoke billows during clashes between forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebel fighters in al-Jadaan area about 50 kilometres northwest of Marib in central Yemen, February 12, 2021.
Smoke billows during clashes between forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebel fighters in al-Jadaan area about 50 kilometres northwest of Marib in central Yemen, February 12, 2021. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has said it foiled a Houthi drone attack on a southern airport just days before the new US administration is to stop designating the Yemeni rebels as a "terror" group.

Saudi air defences "intercepted and destroyed a drone rigged with explosives which had been launched by the Houthis against Abha airport," the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels said in a statement quoted by state television.

Abha airport was already targeted by the rebels on Wednesday, when a drone strike left a civilian aircraft ablaze.

The Houthis say that the airport, little more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border, is a legitimate target as it has been used as a base for the coalition's widely condemned bombing campaign in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its allies say that Houthi attacks on the airport amount to "war crimes" as the airport is heavily used by Saudis enjoying the milder climate of the mountains around Abha.

Despite nearly six years of Saudi-led military intervention, the Houthis remain in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and much of the north, and aid groups say they have little choice but to work with them.

The State Department condemned Wednesday's strike on the airport but Blinken said the terror designation of the Houthi movement would still be lifted as planned next Tuesday.

He said sanctions on individual Houthi leaders would remain in place.

"The United States remains clear-eyed about Ansarullah's malign actions and aggression," Blinken said, referring to the Houthi movement by its formal name.

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Short-lived terror label

Wednesday's drone attack came hot on the heels of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's announcement that he would lift the terror designation of the Houthis imposed by his predecessor Mike Pompeo.

The United States announced revoking the designation effective from February 16, a reversal by the Biden administration welcomed by the United Nations and humanitarian groups who feared former president Donald Trump's actions would impede aid deliveries to the conflict-torn country facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday called President Joe Biden’s decision to rescind the designation “a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”

He said the new US administration listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups, bipartisan members of Congress and others “that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.”

Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, nearly all purchased through commercial channels, and UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned last month that US designation of the Houthis already had companies pulling back from dealing with the Yemenis and would likely lead to “a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.”

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called the US action “extremely positive.”

In 2014, the rebel Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen’s north, driving the government into exile. A US-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year to try and restore the internationally recognized government, but years of UN efforts to get both sides to agree to a cease-fire and start peace negotiations have not succeeded.

The conflict has been disastrous for Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, killing more than 112,000 people, creating a humanitarian disaster, and wrecking infrastructure from roads and hospitals to water and electricity networks.

The State Department confirmed last week that Biden was moving to revoke the designation, a day after the president announced an end to offensive support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis.

The US announcement came on the day that four United Nations agencies said more than 2 million Yemeni children under the age of 5 are expected to endure acute malnutrition in 2021 and urged an end to the conflict.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies