DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement denied Saudi media reports on Monday that it had fired a ballistic missile toward Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, at a time of heightened tensions between Tehran and Gulf Arab states allied to Washington.
“The Saudi regime is trying, through these allegations, to rally support for its brutal aggression against our great Yemeni people,” Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said on Facebook.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading a Western-backed coalition of Sunni Muslim states that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government ousted from power in Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV, citing eyewitnesses, reported that Saudi air defense forces intercepted two ballistic missiles above the western cities of Taif and Jeddah. The first one had been directed toward Mecca, it said, without giving evidence.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
More than two million Muslims from around the world make the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Many also visit the city during the holy month of Ramadan, which is currently underway.
Riyadh has accused Iran of ordering last week’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, for which the Houthis claimed responsibility. Tehran denied doing so.
Washington and Tehran have been sparring over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential conflict between the United States and Iran.
On Sunday, the Houthi-run SABA news agency said the group would start military operations against 300 vital military targets, including headquarters and facilities, in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and coalition targets inside Yemen.
Yemen’s conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis deny being Iranian puppets and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.
The strikes on Aramco pumping stations came two days after attacks on vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the UAE, which no one has claimed responsibility for.
The UAE has not blamed anyone pending an investigation. Two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran encouraged the Houthis or Iraq-based Shi’ite Muslim militias to carry out the attacks.
The Houthis have repeatedly targeted Saudi cities and oil installations with missiles and drones, mostly n border areas. Twice, in 2016 and 2017, the coalition said the group had launched a missile toward Mecca, but the movement said it was targeting nearby airports.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Asma Al Sharif in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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