SANA, Yemen — The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen attacked the United Arab Emirates on Monday in an apparent drone strike that blew up several fuel tankers and killed three people, according to state-run Emirati media and Houthi officials.
The Houthis, who have fought a yearslong war with a Saudi-led military coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates, said they used drones and missiles in the attack. The Emirati government said the Houthis were responsible and the foreign ministry condemned it as a “cowardly act to spread terrorism and chaos in the region,” but did not say what weapons were used in the attack.
“We reiterate that those responsible for this unlawful targeting of our country will be held accountable,” the ministry statement said.
The Houthis in Yemen frequently target neighboring Saudi Arabia with drone strikes, including one on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 that severely disrupted the country’s oil exports, and they have also claimed strikes on the U.A.E. several times, though the U.A.E. has consistently denied it.
A minor fire also broke out in the Abu Dhabi International Airport, raising the possibility that it, too, was the target of a drone strike. The police in Abu Dhabi said there were indications that “small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones” started two fires, one at the airport and the other leading to the explosion of the three petroleum gas tankers in an industrial district in southwestern Abu Dhabi near storage tanks for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
The attack came amid a recent escalation of tensions between the Houthis and the Saudi-led forces in Yemen that has shifted the war’s momentum after months of Houthi gains. The ongoing offensives have complicated international efforts to broker a cease-fire to end the war, which has caused what aid groups call the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster.
Days earlier, U.A.E.-backed Yemeni militias launched an offensive against Houthi fighters in the central province of Marib, where most of the worst fighting in Yemen has occurred over the last year as the Houthis seek to seize crucial oil and gas infrastructure controlled by the Saudi-backed government. The Saudi-led coalition said on Twitter that it had carried out 39 operations against the Houthis in Marib in the past 24 hours, killing 230 fighters and destroying 21 military vehicles.
Emirati-backed forces recently claimed that they had taken the nearby province of Shabwa from Houthi control. And Houthi fighters have also refused to release the cargo and crew of a U.A.E.-flagged ship they seized earlier this month that they claimed was carrying weaponry, despite calls to do so from the United Nations. The Saudi-led coalition has said that the ship was instead carrying medical supplies from a field hospital, calling the seizure an act of “piracy.”
The U.S. strongly condemned the attacks.
“The Houthis have claimed responsibility for this attack, and we will work with the U.A.E. and international partners to hold them accountable,” the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in a statement. “Our commitment to the security of the U.A.E. is unwavering and we stand beside our Emirati partners against all threats to their territory.”
Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, said in an interview that the group had refrained from attacking the U.A.E. in recent years because Emirati ground troops had left the country. But with the U.A.E.’s recent Shabwa offensive, he said, the Houthis had decided to resume attacks.
“The goal of striking the heart of the U.A.E. is to deter it,” he said. “We advise the U.A.E. to learn from this lesson. Otherwise, our strikes will continue. And its ability to withstand such strikes is much weaker than that of Saudi Arabia.”
The two sides have been at war since 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen, seeking to push out the Houthis after the rebel group had seized Yemen’s capital and toppled the internationally recognized government.
The U.A.E. initially committed its own troops to the fight, but later withdrew as casualties mounted.
The Houthis have claimed strikes on Emirati targets beyond Yemen’s borders before, including by firing a cruise missile at an Abu Dhabi nuclear power plant in 2017. But the U.A.E. denied that claim.
Still, the country has continued to be a major player in Yemen, supporting anti-Houthi fighters on the ground. Its backing for the Southern Transitional Council, a group that splintered away from — and then waged war on — the internationally-recognized government, has caused violent divisions in the campaign against the Houthis.
The Abu Dhabi police said the tanker explosions had killed one Pakistani national and two Indian nationals and injured six other people.
Shuaib Almosawa reported from Sana, Yemen; Vivian Yee from Cairo; and Isabella Kwai from London. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.