Plane ablaze in Huthi drone attack on Saudi airport

Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia
Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia - AFP/File
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Riyadh (AFP)

A civilian plane was engulfed in flames Wednesday after Yemen's Huthi rebels launched a drone strike on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia, days after the US moved to delist the insurgents as terrorists.

Saudi authorities did not immediately report any casualties from the attack, claimed by the Huthis, the latest in a series of rebel assaults on the kingdom despite a renewed American push to de-escalate the six-year conflict.

"A cowardly criminal terrorist attack launched against Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia by the Huthi militia," state-run Al-Ekhbariya television quoted the Riyadh-led military coalition battling the rebels as saying.

"A fire that engulfed a passenger plane due to the Huthi attack on Abha Airport is under control," it added.

The coalition did not say how the attack was carried out, but earlier in the day reported that it had intercepted two "booby trapped" drones in the south.

The Iran-backed Huthis, who control much of northern Yemen, said they had struck Abha airport with four drones.

Yahya Sarie, spokesman for the Huthis' armed wing, claimed the airport was used to launch attacks on Yemen.

But the coalition insisted that targeting the airport constituted "a war crime" and "put the lives of civilian passengers in danger", according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The rebels appear to be stepping up attacks on the kingdom and on Riyadh-backed Yemeni forces after the United States moved last week to lift a short-lived designation of the Huthis as a terrorist group.

The Huthis have resumed an offensive to seize the Yemeni government's last northern stronghold of Marib, according to a government source, with dozens of casualties on both sides.

- 'Catastrophe' in Yemen -

The US State Department on Friday said it had formally notified Congress of its intention to revoke a terrorism designation against the rebels, which had been announced in the final days of the administration of president Donald Trump.

The delisting move came a day after US President Joe Biden announced an end to American support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.

Biden's decisions last week mark a reversal of policies by the Trump administration, which staunchly backed Saudi Arabia and a fierce opponent of Huthi supporter Iran.

Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the blacklisting, saying it jeopardised their operations in a country where the majority of people rely on aid and where they have no choice but to deal with the Huthis.

Biden, who has also halted some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, called Yemen’s war a "catastrophe" which "has to end".

Last week he appointed a US special envoy for Yemen, veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking, who is expected to boost efforts to end the war.

Biden said Lenderking would support a UN push for a ceasefire and revive talks between the Huthis and the government.

Saudi Arabia, which entered the Yemen conflict in 2015 to bolster the internationally recognised government, has repeatedly been targeted with cross-border attacks.

Last month, it said it had intercepted and destroyed a "hostile air target" heading towards the capital Riyadh.