geopolitics-00821
Smoke billows during clashes between forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Huthi rebel fighters in Yemen's northeastern province of Marib on March 5, 2021.

The Saudi-led coalition on Saturday launched a “large-scale” assault on Yemen after a projectile killed two people in the kingdom, in the first such deaths in three years by the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

The Huthis warned Yemen’s oil-rich northern neighbour of a “painful” response if the coalition does not stop its “aggression” against the conflict-riven country.

Yemen has been wracked by civil war since 2014 pitting the internationally recognised government supported by the Saudi-led military coalition against the Huthis who control much of the north.

Tens of thousands of people have since been killed, in what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The latest violence came overnight when two people — one Saudi and the other Yemeni — were killed and seven others wounded in the projectile attack on Jazan, according to Saudi’s civil defence.

“A military projectile fell on a commercial store on the main street, resulting in two deaths,” it said, adding six Saudis and a Bangladeshi national were wounded.

Images from the official Saudi Press Agency purportedly of the aftermath of the attack showed a large crater in the ground and a number of destroyed vehicles.

– Huthis warn of ‘painful’ response –

The Saudi-led coalition said shortly afterwards that it was “preparing for a large-scale military operation”.

It later launched an air strike in which “three civilians including a child and a woman were killed, and six others were wounded”, Yemeni medics told AFP.

The coalition said it would hold a news conference later on Saturday to address the latest developments.

Huthi spokesman Yahya Saree warned Saudi Arabia of “painful operations as long as it continues its aggression and crimes”.

In a statement published on the Huthis’ Telegram channel, he said the rebels had launched three ballistic missiles on Jazan, a southern region of the kingdom bordering Yemen.

The insurgents often launch missiles and drones into Saudi Arabia, targeting its airports and oil infrastructure.

The latest was the first in more than three years that has resulted in fatalities in the kingdom, which recorded its first death from a Huthi missile attack when a missile struck Riyadh in 2018.

It also comes as fighting between the two sides intensifies, with the coalition ramping air strikes on Sanaa.

– Humanitarian crisis –

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and its ally the United States have long accused Iran of supplying the Huthis with sophisticated weapons, a charge the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic denies.

The US Navy said this week that it seized 1,400 AK-47 rifles and ammunition from a fishing boat it claimed was smuggling weapons from Iran to the Huthis, who are from Yemen’s Zaidi Shiite minority.

“The stateless vessel was assessed to have originated in Iran and transited international waters along a route historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to the Huthis in Yemen,” it said.

On Thursday — a day after the coalition targeted a Huthi military camp in Sanaa — the military alliance said it shot down a bomb-laden drone near Abha airport in the south of the kingdom, causing debris to fall nearby but leaving no casualties.

And earlier this week, it targeted Sanaa airport, whose operations have largely ceased because of a Saudi-led blockade since August 2016, with exemptions for aid flights.

The World Food Programme said it has been “forced” to cut aid to Yemen due to lack of funds, and warned of a surge in hunger in the country.

“From January, eight million will receive a reduced food ration, while five million at immediate risk of slipping into famine conditions will remain on a full ration,” the UN agency said in a statement, adding that it was “running out of funds”.

The UN estimates Yemen’s war will have claimed 377,000 lives by the end of the year through both direct and indirect impacts.

More than 80 percent of Yemen’s population of about 30 million requires humanitarian assistance in what the UN says is world’s worst humanitarian crisis.