By Marwa Rashad
ABHA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – As Nadia Assiri waited inside a regional Saudi Arabian airport for her sister to arrive from the capital Riyadh, an explosion threw her to the floor and ignited a fire.
Nearby, shrapnel tore through the arm and leg of another woman, Indian-national Um Karim, when a missile hit the arrivals hall of Abha airport where she had been sitting in the early hours of Wednesday morning after a night flight.
The Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which is locked in a war with a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the attack. The coalition said 26 people were hurt, including Saudi, Yemeni and Indian nationals.
The Western-backed, Sunni Muslim alliance responded on Thursday with air strikes around the Houthi-held Yemeni capital Sanaa that it said targeted the group’s military assets.
The Saudi airport that was struck, Abha, is about 200 km (125 miles) north of the border with Yemen. When media visited the airport on Thursday, it smelled of fresh paint. The flat bitumen roof of the arrivals hall had been patched up, but scorch marks could be seen.
“While we were sitting we heard a noise and then saw fire and the blast threw me far,” said Assiri, a 33-year-old Saudi.
Um Karim’s son-in-law said that the explosion shook the car as the family came to pick her up. “I was scared there would be a second blast,” he told Reuters.
The Houthis said a cruise missile strike destroyed the control tower, but a Reuters reporter could not see any damage to that building other then some shattered glass on the ground.
The Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital and the territory where most of the population lives, have for years targeted Saudi cities and infrastructure with drones and missiles, most of which have been intercepted by Saudi defence systems.
The strike on a civilian target inside Saudi Arabia came at a time of elevated tensions in the region between Iran and Gulf Arab allies of the United States.
“The fact that civilians have been injured (in Abha) puts additional pressure on the Saudis to respond to this attack. This just adds more fuel to the fire,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, a defence expert at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
On Wednesday, the coalition said evidence indicated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had supplied the Houthis with the weapon used in the Abha attack. The spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said on Thursday the fact the missiles were not intercepted did not mean there was a failure in Saudi defences.
Last month the Houthis claimed responsibility for an armed drone strike on two oil-pumping stations in Saudi Arabia, the first time they had struck the kingdom’s oil infrastructure.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore a government ousted from power in Sanaa by the Houthis. The alliance has come under international criticism for air strikes that have hit civilians. It says it does not purposely target civilians.
(Reporting by Marwa Rashad; Editing by Peter Graff; Writing by Lisa Barrington)