Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been accused of targeting Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca by launching a long-range ballistic missile from 500km over the border.
The rebels and their ally Iran vehemently denied the allegation on Friday.
The Saudi-led military coalition – which is backing Yemen’s pro-government forces in the conflict with the Shia fighters – said the missile was “intercepted and destroyed” before it could do any damage – about 65km from Mecca, home to some of Islam’s most sacred sites.
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It would be the deepest strike yet to hit Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in a series of deadly border clashes with the Houthis since they overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014 and seized large parts of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
Mohammed al-Bekheity, a Houthi leader, denied that the missile targeted Mecca.
“We do not target civilians and, in turn, we would not target holy areas,” he said.
Al-Bekheity said the aim behind the coalition’s allegation was to garner sympathy from Muslims and the international community.
“After Saudi Arabia’s crimes against Yemenis were exposed, drawing international sympathy towards Yemen, here it is using such allegations to attract attention towards it,” he said.
The Houthi-affiliated SABA news agency reported that the missile hit the international airport in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
However, Abdulmalak Alsham, an airport official, told Al Jazeera that there was no missile strike on the airport.
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The missile was launched from Saada province, a Houthi stronghold just across the border from Saudi Arabia.
In response to the missile attack, the Saudi military launched air strikes against the rebels, targeting the area where the missile was fired from.
It is the second time this month the rebels have fired a missile of that range.
On October 9, the coalition said it intercepted a missile near Taif, the site of a Saudi airbase. Taif is about 70km from Mecca.
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It is suspected that the Houthis and their allies – including forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, possess a stockpile of Soviet-era scud missiles, as well as locally designed weapons.
The Saudi military has a supply of US-made, surface-to-air Patriot missile batteries it previously has fired at Houthi-launched missiles.
United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan criticised Iran after the alleged Houthi missile attack. Tehran is accused of arming the rebels.
“The Iranian regime backs a terrorist group that fires its rockets on Mecca… Is this an Islamic regime as it claims to be?” Nahyan wrote on Twitter.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi dismissed claims that the Houthis targeted Mecca as “ridiculous”.
“We advise officials of the [United Arab] Emirates and Saudi Arabia not to use Islamic holy sites for their mean political intentions and not to resort to this sort of hypocritical, rift-making and dangerous hyperbole,” Ghasemi was quoted as saying by Iran’s ISNA news agency.