By AYA BATRAWY, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Jan 17 (AP) — A suspected drone attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels targeting a key oil facility in Abu Dhabi killed three people and sparked a separate fire at Abu Dhabi’s international airport on Monday, police said.
Police in the United Arab Emirates identified the dead as two Indian nationals and one Pakistani. It did not identify the wounded, who police said suffered minor to moderate injuries at an industrial area where Abu Dhabi’s state-owned energy company runs a pipeline network and an oil tanker storage facility.
Three transport tankers caught fire at the facility, while another fire was sparked at an extension of Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Police said that while an investigation was underway, preliminary findings indicated there were small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones, that fell in the two areas and may have caused the explosion and fire. They said there was no significant damage from the incidents, without offering further details.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed they were behind an attack targeting the United Arab Emirates on Monday, without immediately elaborating. The Iranian-backed Houthis have claimed several attacks that Emirati officials later denied took place.
The incident comes as Yemen’s yearslong war rages on and as an Emirati-flagged vessel was recently captured by the Houthis. Although the UAE has largely withdrawn its own forces from the conflict tearing apart the Arab world’s poorest nation, it is still actively engaged in Yemen and supports local militias there fighting the Houthis.
The UAE has been at war in Yemen since early 2015, and was a key member of the Saudi-led coalition that launched attacks against the Houthis after the group overran the capital of Yemen and ousted the internationally backed government from power.
The Houthis have come under pressure in recent weeks and are suffering heavy losses as Yemeni forces, allied and backed by the UAE, have pushed back the rebels in key southern and central provinces of the country, dashing Houthi efforts to complete their control of the entire northern half of Yemen.
Yemen’s government-aligned forces reclaimed the entire southern province of Shabwa from the Houthis earlier this month and made advances in nearby Marib province. They were aided by the UAE-backed Giants Brigades and had help from Saudi airstrikes.
The airport fire in Abu Dhabi was described by police as “minor” and took place at an extension of the international airport that is still under construction. For years, the airport home to Etihad Airways has been building its new Midfield Terminal, but it was not clear if that was where the fire took place.
Etihad Airways said “precautionary measures resulted in a short disruption for a small number of flights” and that airport operations have returned to normal. Abu Dhabi Airports did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The other blast struck three petroleum transport tankers near a complex for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. in the Musaffah industrial area. The company describes it as a pipeline and terminal facility located some 22 kilometers (13 miles) from the center of the city of Abu Dhabi, where 36 storage tanks also supply transport trucks carrying fuel. It is also a short distance from Al-Dhafra Air Base, a military installation that hosts U.S. and French forces.
The location of the ADNOC facility where the tankers caught fire is approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) northeast of Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold in Yemen.
While Emirati troops have been killed in the war in Yemen, the conflict so far has not directly affected daily life in the wider UAE, a country with a vast foreign workforce that is also home to Dubai, a glitzy city of sky scrapers and five-star hotels.
The incident comes as South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is visiting the UAE. During a meeting with Emirati Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on Sunday, the two countries reportedly reached a preliminary deal valued at some $3.5 billion sell mid-range South Korean surface-to-air missiles to the UAE.
At an event attended by the South Korean president earlier in the day, Emirati Energy Minister Suhail Mazrouei declined to comment on the explosion at ADNOC’s facility, saying only that police would provide updates on their investigation.
The Houthis have used bomb-laden drones to launch crude and imprecise attacks aimed at Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the course of the six-year-long war. The group has also launched missiles at Saudi airports, oil facilities and pipelines, and used booby-trapped boats for attacks in key shipping routes.
Though there have been civilian deaths in Saudi Arabia from some of these attacks, the overwhelming number of civilian deaths in the conflict have been in Yemen. The war has killed 130,000 people in Yemen — both civilians and fighters — and has exacerbated hunger and famine across the impoverished country.
Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, noted that while the Houthis have claimed responsibility for an attack on the UAE, Iraqi-based militias have also threatened the Emiratis with attacks.
“Today’s attack comes only days after Iran-backed groups threatened to strike against Abu Dhabi in response to alleged Emirati interference in Iraqi politics,” he said.
He said the attack highlights the missile and drone threat faced by the UAE and the region’s other main oil producers. He said unless Gulf Arab states find a solution to diffuse regional tensions “they will remain vulnerable to attacks.”