Biggest oil price surge since 1991 as ‘locked and loaded’ U.S. points finger at Iran for attack

By Rania El Gamal and Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – An attack on Saudi Arabia that shut 5% of global crude output triggered the biggest surge in oil prices since 1991, after U.S. officials blamed Iran and President Donald Trump said Washington was “locked and loaded” to retaliate.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls Yemen’s capital claimed responsibility for the attack, which damaged the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant. Iran denied blame and said it was ready for “full-fledged war”.

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% before coming off peaks. The intraday jump was the biggest since the 1991 Gulf War. [O/R]

Prices eased after Trump announced that he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks stored up worldwide to make up for the shortfall. But traders still spoke of a long-term price increase as markets absorb the proof that global supply can be so sharply hit.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry pinned the blame squarely on Iran for “an attack on the global economy and the global energy market”.

“The United States wholeheartedly condemns Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia and we call on other nations to do the same,” he said in a speech to an annual meeting in Vienna of the U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA. He added that he was confident the oil market “is resilient and will respond positively”.

While Iran has denied blame for the attacks, its Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s pre-dawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights and could be hit at any moment.”

U.S. officials say they believe that the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” a U.S. official said on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting against the Houthis for four years.

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

THREATS

For months Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. However, Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the U.S. accusations of Iranian involvement in Saturday’s attacks “unacceptable and entirely baseless”.

Iran said on Monday it had seized a vessel accused of smuggling diesel fuel to the United Arab Emirates. Tehran has long fought against smuggling of its subsidized fuel.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

“Proposals on tough retaliatory actions, which appear to have been discussed in Washington, are even more unacceptable,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Britain – Washington’s close ally but wary of its hardline Iran policy – stopped short of ascribing blame but described the assault as a “wanton violation of international law”.

Washington has imposed its “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran since last year when Trump pulled out of an international deal that gave Tehran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

U.S. allies in Europe oppose Trump’s strategy, arguing that it provides no clear mechanism to defuse tensions, creating a risk that the foes could stumble into war.

Trump has said his goal is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with President Hassan Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions. Its foreign ministry said on Monday Rouhani would not meet Trump.

Officials in big energy-exporting countries were eager to assert that global markets could cope with the Saudi outage.

“We have spare capacity. There are volumes we can deal with as an instant reaction,” the energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail al-Mazrouei, told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters there was enough oil in commercial stockpiles to cover the shortfall.

The giant Saudi plant that was struck cleans crude oil of impurities, a necessary step before it can be exported and fed into refineries. The attack cut Saudi output by 5.7 million barrels a day, or around half.

Saudi Arabia is not only the world’s biggest oil exporter, it has a unique role in the market as the only country with enough spare capacity to increase or decrease its output by millions of barrels per day, keeping the market stable.

Big countries such as the United States and China have reserves designed to handle even a major outage over the short term. But a long outage would make markets subject to swings that could potentially destabilize the global economy.

(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Rania El Gamal, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Asma El Sharif, Saed Azhar Hadeel Al Sayegh and Dubai bureau, Karin Strohecker and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, Michael Martina in Beijing, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump, Saudi Arabia warn Iran against Middle East conflict

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

By Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to Tehran on Sunday, tweeting that a conflict would be the “official end” of Iran, as Saudi Arabia warned it stood ready to respond with “all strength” and said it was up to Iran to avoid war.

The heightened rhetoric follows last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets and the firing of a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” that exploded near the U.S. embassy.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump said in a tweet without elaborating.

A U.S. State Department official said the rocket attack in Baghdad did not hit a U.S.-inhabited facility and produced no casualties nor any significant damage. No claims of responsibility had been made, but the United States was taking the incident “very seriously.”

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

“We have made clear over the past two weeks and again underscore that attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner,” the official said in an emailed statement. “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly.”

Riyadh, which emphasized that it does not want a war, has accused Tehran of ordering Tuesday’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. Two days earlier, four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In response, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began “enhanced security patrols” in the international waters of the Arabian Gulf area on Saturday, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said on Sunday.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident, which come as Washington and the Islamic Republic spar over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference on Sunday.

“It will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that in the event the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination, and it will defend itself and its interests.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of the attacks.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance toward the besetting challenges and risks,” the UAE foreign ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said in its statement about increased maritime patrols that GCC countries were “specifically increasing communication and coordination with each other in support of regional naval cooperation and maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf,” with navies and coast guards working with the U.S. Navy.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ally the UAE has not blamed anyone for the tanker sabotage operation, pending an investigation. No-one has claimed responsibility, but two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran had encouraged the Houthi group or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry it out.

The drone strike on oil pumping stations, which Riyadh said did not disrupt output or exports, was claimed by the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in a war in Yemen since 2015.

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

The Houthi-controled SABA news agency said on Sunday, citing a military source from the group, that targeting Aramco’s installations last week was the beginning of coming military operations against 300 vital military targets.

Targets include vital military headquarters and facilities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as their bases in Yemen, the source told SABA.

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, derided Riyadh’s call to convene Arab summits, saying in a Twitter post that they “only know how to support war and destruction”.

A Norwegian insurers’ report seen by Reuters said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have facilitated the attack on vessels near the UAE’s Fujairah emirate, a main bunkering hub lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

SAUDI PRINCE CALLS POMPEO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the possibility of war erupting, saying Tehran did not want conflict and no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”. This stance was echoed by the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday.

“We are not pursuing war but we are also not afraid of war,” Major General Hossein Salami was cited as saying by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Washington has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to United States troops and interests.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” Jubeir said. “The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

He said the crew of an Iranian oil tanker that had been towed to Saudi Arabia early this month after a request for help due to engine trouble were still in the kingdom receiving the “necessary care”. The crew are 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis.

Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch-adversaries in the Middle East, backing opposite sides in several regional wars. In a sign of the heightened tension, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq.

Bahrain on Saturday warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran and asked those already there to return. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory to U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to exercise caution.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Nandita Bose in Washington, Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin, Ghaida Ghantous and David Lawder; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Houthi drones kill several at Yemeni military parade

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

ADEN (Reuters) – Drones belonging to the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in the southern province of Lahaj, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.

The attack comes as the United Nations tries to get peace talks going between the Houthis who control northern Yemen and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi by overseeing a limited ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when an explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said. They said high-ranking officers including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff had been wounded.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five people had been killed and several injured. Houthi Al-Masirah TV said the attack had been aimed at “the leadership of the invaders”.

A military source said the focus of the attack had been the podium where senior officers were sitting.

It was unclear if officers were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a Sunni Muslim Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government, which had been ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement the U.N.-sponsored deal in Hodeidah.

The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to stop fighting and withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure.

The ceasefire only applies to Hodeidah province but the British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, tweeted on Thursday that an escalation anywhere in Yemen “goes against the spirit of the Stockholm agreement”.

Implementation of the deal, the first breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, has stalled as the sides disagree on who will control the city of Hodeidah after the withdrawal.

Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hadi was elected to head a transitional government but after the Houthis took Sanaa he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis deny getting any help from Iran and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Explainer: Is Yemen finally on the road to peace?

FILE PHOTO: Boys walk amid ruins of houses during the conflict in the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen November 22, 2018. Picture taken November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – Weeks of U.N. shuttle diplomacy and Western pressure delivered a breakthrough in Yemen peace efforts when the warring parties last week agreed to cease fighting in a contested Red Sea port city and withdraw forces.

The challenge lies in securing an orderly troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation, amid deep mistrust among the parties.

At the same time, the United Nations must prepare for critical discussions on a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations to end the conflict.

The nearly four-year-old war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, pits the Iran-aligned Houthi group against other Yemeni factions fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition trying to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Houthis, who ousted Hadi’s administration from the capital Sanaa in 2014, and their coalition foes are due to start implementing the Hodeidah ceasefire on Tuesday.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are under pressure from Western allies including the United States and Britain, which supply arms and intelligence to the Sunni Muslim alliance, to end the war as Riyadh comes under scrutiny after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

WHY IS HODEIDAH SO IMPORTANT?

It is the main port used to feed Yemen’s 30 million people and has been the focus of fighting this year, raising global fears that a full-scale assault could cut off supply lines and lead to mass starvation. The war and the ensuing economic collapse has left 15.9 million people facing severe hunger.

The Houthis currently control the city. Coalition-backed Yemeni forces have massed on the outskirts in an offensive aimed at seizing the seaport. Their aim is to weaken the group by cutting off its main supply line.

The alliance bogged down in a military stalemate, also wants to secure the coast along the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers.

The coalition captured the southern port of Aden in 2015 and a string of ports on the western coast, but the Houthis control most towns and cities in Yemen, including Hodeidah and Sanaa.

Analysts say implementing the agreement is important, as any lapse in momentum could be used by the coalition as a justification to resume its offensive on Hodeidah.

WHERE DO THINGS STAND NOW?

Griffiths said when the deal was announced on Thursday that troop withdrawal from the port should begin “within days” and later from the city. International monitors would be deployed and all armed forces would pull back completely within 21 days.

The UAE has massed thousands of Yemeni forces — drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — on the outskirts of Hodeidah.

A U.N.-chaired committee including both sides would oversee the withdrawal of forces. The United Nations has said it would play a leading role in the port, but the agreement did not spell out who would run the city.

In remarks illustrating the risks of a resumption of the bloodshed in Hodeidah, each side has said the city would ultimately fall under their control.

Griffiths has asked the U.N. Security Council to urgently pass a resolution backing deployment of a robust monitoring regime, headed by retired Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert.

The envoy is also working on securing other confidence-building steps hanging over from the peace talks, including reopening Sanaa airport and supporting the central bank.

WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP TO PEACE?

A second round of talks is due to be held in January on a framework for negotiations and transitional governing body.

The Houthis, who have no traction in the south, want a meaningful role in Yemen’s government and to rebuild their stronghold of Saada in the north of the country, analysts said.

The analysts say Saudi Arabia can live with a Houthi political role as long as they disarm. Riyadh says it does not want a military movement like Lebanon’s Iran-allied Hezbollah near its borders.

“Moving forward, the inclusion of key factions that have so far been excluded from the process will be key,” said Adam Baron of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Yemen’s fractious armed groups and parties, numerous before the war, have proliferated further since 2015, and each has their own agenda. The war also revived old strains between North and South Yemen, formerly separate countries which united into a single state in 1990 under slain former president Saleh.

Southern separatists resented concentration of resources in the north. Some of the Shi’ite Zaydi sect chafed as their north heartland became impoverished and in the late 1990s formed the Houthi group, which fought the army and forged ties with Iran. Jihadists set up an al Qaeda wing.

Mass pro-democracy protests in 2011 forced Saleh to step down after some of his former allies turned on him and the army split. His deputy Hadi was elected to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition but was undermined.

In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa aided by Saleh loyalists, forcing Hadi to share power. When a federal constitution was proposed, both Houthis and southern separatists rejected it.

The Houthis arrested Hadi in 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The coalition then entered the war on Hadi’s side.

(Additional reporting and writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)

Yemen talks set to start in Sweden after wounded Houthis evacuated

A wounded Houthi fighter, on a wheelchair, holds his passport at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohamed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi

ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi officials are expected to travel to Sweden shortly for talks as early as Wednesday to end the nearly four-year-old war after the Saudi-led coalition allowed the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment.

Prospects for convening talks have risen as Western allies press Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim alliance battling the Iranian-aligned Houthis, over a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday to escort the Houthi delegation, a U.N. source told Reuters. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow the Houthis to the talks, the first since 2016.

The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said. Griffiths shuttled between the parties to salvage a previous round that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, may now have greater leverage to demand action on Yemen after outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to increased scrutiny of the kingdom’s activities in the region.

The U.S. Senate is due to consider this week a resolution to end support for the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-foe in the Middle East, Iran.

A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition to the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport early on Monday as the commercial plane hired by the United Nations to take them to Oman for treatment arrived. The aircraft departed later on Monday.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

The coalition said in a statement it had agreed on the evacuation for “for humanitarian considerations and as part of confidence-building measures” ahead of the talks, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it backed the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

HODEIDAH CHALLENGE

Analysts said both parties showing up for the talks would be an achievement in itself, even if there are no concrete outcomes as Griffiths tries to overcome deep mistrust on all sides.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will probably rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has bogged down in a military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port of Aden that year.

The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centers including Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now the focus of the war.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider ceasefire, which would include a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO and Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Toby Chopra; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. touts new evidence of Iranian weaponry in Yemen, Afghanistan

FILE PHOTO: A missile that the U.S. Department of Defense says is confirmed as a "Qiam" ballistic missile manufactured in Iran by its distinctively Iranian nine fueling ports and that the Pentagon says was fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi Arabia on July 22, 2017 is seen on display at a military base in Washington, U.S. December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg /File Photo

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday displayed pieces of what it said were Iranian weapons deployed to militants in Yemen and Afghanistan, a tactic by President Donald Trump’s administration to pressure Tehran to curb its regional activities.

The second presentation of Iranian weapons by the Pentagon, many of which were handed over by Saudi Arabia, coincides with growing concern in Congress over U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, which has led to a deep humanitarian crisis.

Members of Congress have escalated their opposition to Saudi Arabia after the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate. Despite administration pleas to stick with the Saudis and thereby counter Iran, the Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end military support for the Saudis in Yemen.

If Iran were found to be shipping arms to Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries, it would be in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Reuters was given advanced access to the military hangar at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling just outside of Washington where the U.S. Defense Department put the fragments of weaponry on display and explained how it concluded that they came from Iran.

“We want there to be no doubt across the world that this is a priority for the United States and that it’s in international interest to address it,” said Katie Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

The presentation, the second such one in the last year, is part of a government-wide effort to follow through on Trump’s policy to take a far harder line toward Tehran. He pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, in part for its “malign” regional activities.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis in Yemen with such weaponry and described the Pentagon’s previous arms display as “fabricated.”

WEAPONS TO YEMEN

The Pentagon offered a detailed explanation of why it believed the arms on display came from Iran, noting what it said were Iranian corporate logos on arms fragments and the unique nature of the designs of Iranian weaponry.

The United States acknowledged it could not say precisely when the weapons were transferred to the Houthis, and, in some cases, could not say when they were used. There was no immediate way to independently verify where the weapons were made or employed.

This included a “Sayyad-2” surface to air missile (SAM), which the Pentagon said had been interdicted by the Saudi government in early 2018 en route to Houthi militants in Yemen.

The Pentagon cited a corporate logo of an Iranian defense firm in the warhead section, which was not displayed, and writing in Farsi along the missile as evidence that it was Iranian.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Pentagon did not know if the Houthis had actually used this type of missile before.

The Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, have fired dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia in recent months, part of a three-year-old conflict widely seen as a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Under a U.N. resolution that enshrines the Iran nuclear deal with world powers, Tehran is prohibited from supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside the country unless approved by the U.N. Security Council. A separate U.N. resolution on Yemen bans the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders.

WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

The United States has long accused Iran of providing weapons to Taliban militants in Afghanistan. In October, Washington targeted two individuals linked to the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for providing material and financial support to the Taliban.

The Pentagon displayed a number of “Fadjr” rockets, that it said had been provided to the Taliban. It said they were Iranian because of the unique markings on the rockets and the paint scheme, along with the markings on them.

The Taliban is known to buy weapons on the black market and defense officials could not say why they were sure these missiles had not been simply bought by the Taliban.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

Young survivors of Yemen school bus air strike return to class

Muhammad al-Shadheli, 9, who survived an August 2018 Saudi-led air strike on a school bus, sits on a wheelchair during the morning drill at his school in Saada province, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

SAADA, Yemen (Reuters) – In a small school in Yemen’s Saada province, the absence of dozens of their classmates killed in an air strike on a bus weighed heavily on the young survivors as they returned to classes.

Ahmad Ali Hanash, 14, struggled to hold back tears as he recalled the friends he lost in the attack by a Saudi-led military alliance on a market in Saada in northern Yemen in August.

“Their blood will not be in vain, we will avenge them by getting an education, we will avenge them by learning,” Hanash, who was on the bus, told Reuters. “I thank God for surviving the attack, the ugly crime.”

As the survivors resumed their lives, joining morning exercise drills in the sand yard of the two-storey Al Falah primary school, or attending classes in wheelchairs alongside peers seated at wooden desks, other students said they feared more attacks in the war-torn country.

“We are sad after we lost our dearest schoolmates, and we are worried that the enemy will strike the school,” said 15-year-old Sadiq Amin Jaafar. “But we will continue our education.”

Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition of Arab states fighting against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls north Yemen, said last month that the coalition accepted that the attack had killed dozens of people, including children on the bus, and that it was unjustified.

The kingdom and its ally the United Arab Emirates receive Western political support and buy billions of dollars a year in arms from the United States and European powers including Britain and France.

The alliance has launched thousands of air strikes in a campaign to restore the internationally recognized government, killing hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools, markets and weddings.

International pressure has mounted on the kingdom to seek a political deal with the Houthi group in a 3-1/2 year war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the already impoverished country to the brink of famine.

The alliance says it does not intentionally target civilians. The Houthis have also been criticized by rights groups.

Students attend the morning drills at their school which lost pupils in an August 2018 Saudi-led air strike on a school bus in Saada province, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

Students attend the morning drills at their school which lost pupils in an August 2018 Saudi-led air strike on a school bus in Saada province, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

Nearly half a million children in Yemen have dropped out of school since 2015, bringing the total number of out-of-school children to 2 million, according to a UNICEF report in March.

But teacher Abdul Wahab Salah said that fear of coalition attacks on Saada, a Houthi stronghold, would not deter the school or students.

“It pains us that we lost so many of our students. They were exceptional and they were committed,” he said.

“We also are worried (about attacks), but we will continue to build future generations.”

(Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Yemen buries children killed by air strike, Riyadh insists raid ‘legitimate’

Boys demonstrate outside the offices of the United Nations in Sanaa, Yemen to denounce last weeks air strike that killed dozens including children in the northwestern province of Saada, August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SAADA, Yemen (Reuters) – Thousands of mourners on Monday buried dozens of children killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in northern Yemen, one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the three-year-old war.

At least 40 children were killed in Thursday’s raid which hit the bus as it drove through a market of Dahyan, a town in Saada, the armed Houthi group which controls the province said.

Amid outrage from international human rights groups and U.N. officials, Riyadh continued to defend the raid as a “legitimate military action” intended to hit Houthi leaders, a day after it authorized a coalition investigation of the strike.

Wooden coffins, most with a picture of a child, were taken by cars and carried by pallbearers to a graveyard from a square where prayers were held earlier. “Death to America, death to Israel,” the crowd chanted, echoing the Houthis’ slogan.

The shrouded bodies were removed from the coffins and placed in a row of unmarked graves that had been dug on Friday.

“My son went to the market to run house errands and then the enemy air strike happened and he was hit by shrapnel and died,” said Fares al-Razhi, mourning his 14-year-old son.

“For my son, I will take revenge on Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed,” he said, referring to leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Gulf Arab states are leading the alliance of Sunni Muslim countries that intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government that was expelled from the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014.

The coalition said on Friday it would investigate the strike after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack and called for an independent probe.

But on Saturday, state news agency SPA said Riyadh’s mission to the world body delivered a message to Guterres reiterating that the raid was “legitimate” and targeted Houthi leaders “responsible for recruiting and training young children”.

“War can’t be a clean operation, unfortunately,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told reporters in Dubai when asked about the Saada attack. “But I will say all parties need to accept their part in what they are doing today.”

Mourners attend the funeral of people, mainly children, killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in northern Yemen, in Saada, Yemen August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

Mourners attend the funeral of people, mainly children, killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in northern Yemen, in Saada, Yemen August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

TALKS PLANNED

The coalition initially said after the attack that the strike had targeted missile launchers that were used by the Houthis to attack the southern Saudi province of Jizan.

The Houthis’ health minister Taha Mutawakil said last week that the number of casualties stood at 51 killed including 40 children, and at least 79 people wounded, of which 56 were children. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported the same toll on Friday, citing authorities in Saada.

The Houthi-run al-Masirah TV on Monday quoted a health official as saying another child had died from his wounds, raising the toll to 52.

The head of the Houthis’ supreme revolutionary committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, attended the funeral and blamed the United States for “this ugly massacre of Yemeni children”.

The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the alliance, and human rights groups have criticized them over coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools and markets.

A U.S. military spokeswoman said U.S. forces were not involved in Thursday’s air strike. The U.S. State Department urged the alliance to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation”.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday he has dispatched a three-star general to Riyadh to “look into what happened”.

The coalition says it does not intentionally target civilians and has set up a committee to probe alleged mass casualty air strikes, which has mostly cleared it of any blame.

The Houthis have also been criticized by rights groups.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen has been shuttling between the warring parties ahead of holding consultations in Geneva on Sept. 6 to try to end the conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the impoverished Arab country to the verge of starvation, according to the United Nations.

The UAE’s Gargash said he hoped the Geneva talks signaled the start of a process that would lead to a political solution to the conflict — which is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and regional foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen, Maha El Dahan in Dubai and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Dozens killed, including children on a bus, in Yemen air strikes

A Yemeni man holds a boy who was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

ADEN (Reuters) – Saudi-led coalition air strikes on Thursday killed dozens of people, including children traveling on a bus, in Yemen’s Saada province, Yemeni medical sources and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The Western-backed alliance fighting the Iranian-aligned Houthi group in Yemen said in a statement that the air strikes targeted missile launchers used to attack the southern Saudi city of Jizan on Wednesday, killing a Yemeni civilian there.

It accused the Houthis of using children as human shields.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the coalition showed “clear disregard for civilian life” as the attack had targeted a crowded public place in the city.

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

The ICRC said one attack hit the bus driving children in Dahyan market, in northern Saada, adding hospitals there had received dozens of dead and wounded.

A Reuters photographer saw bloodied and bandaged children being treated by doctors.

Footage from the Houthi media office showed a boy wearing a blue backpack with a UNICEF logo being carried into a hospital emergency room with blood pouring down his face and over his traditional Yemeni thawb, an ankle-length garment.

Abdul-Ghani Sareeh, head of a health department in Saada, told Reuters that the death toll was to 43, with 61 wounded.

“Scores killed, even more injured, most under the age of 10,” Johannes Bruwer, head of the delegation for the ICRC in Yemen, said in a Twitter post.

It was unclear how many children were killed and how many air strikes were carried out in the area, in northern Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“RED LINE”

Saudi Arabia and Sunni Muslim allies intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 against the Houthis, who control the most populous areas of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and drove the internationally recognized government into exile in 2014.

The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the alliance, and human rights groups have criticized them over coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools, and markets.

The alliance says it does not intentionally target civilians and has set up a committee to probe alleged mass casualty air strikes, which has mostly cleared the coalition of any blame.

“Today’s attack in Saada was a legitimate military operation … and was carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law,” the coalition said in the Arabic-language statement carried by SPA.

“Targeting Saudis and residents in Saudi is a red line,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki later told Al Arabiya TV.

Fragments from the Houthi missile launched at Jizan Industrial City had killed one Yemeni civilian and wounded 11, Saudi state media said earlier on Thursday.

The Houthis have launched a series of missile strikes on the kingdom, including Riyadh, over the past year.

Saada, the main stronghold of the Houthis, has mainly come under air strikes from the coalition as the mountainous province makes battles hard for pro-government ground troops.

The Yemen war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country to the verge of famine, according to the United Nations.

(Corrects official’s name in paragraph 8 to Abdul-Ghani Sareeh from Abdul-Ghani Nayeb)

(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Writing and additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Arab states launch biggest assault of Yemen war with attack on main port

By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Mokhashef

ADEN (Reuters) – A Saudi-led alliance of Arab states launched an attack on Yemen’s main port city on Wednesday in the largest battle of the war, aiming to bring the ruling Houthi movement to its knees at the risk of worsening the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

Arab warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by foreign and Yemeni troops massed south of the port of Hodeidah in operation “Golden Victory”.

Fighting raged near Hodeidah airport and al-Durayhmi, a rural area 10 km (6 miles) south of the city, media controlled by the Arab states and their Yemeni allies reported.

The assault marks the first time the Arab states have tried to capture such a heavily-defended major city since joining the war three years ago against the Iran-aligned Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and most of the populated areas.

The United Nations says 8.4 million Yemenis are on the verge of famine, and for most the port is the only route for food supplies.

The U.N. Security Council is due to meet behind closed doors on Thursday – at the request of Britain – over the attack on Hodeidah, diplomats said.

The Houthis deployed military vehicles and troops in the city center and near the port, as warplanes struck the coast to the south, a resident speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters. People fled by routes to the north and west.

Residents emerged from homes in the late afternoon to shop for food before the breaking of the Ramadan fast, he said.

CARE International, one of the few aid agencies still there, said 30 air strikes hit the city within half an hour. “Some civilians are entrapped, others forced from their homes. We thought it could not get any worse, but unfortunately we were wrong,” said CARE’s acting country director, Jolien Veldwijk.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV quoted witnesses describing “concentrated and intense” bombing near the port itself.

“Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict have to do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive,” said Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said the world body was talking to both sides to try to avert a battle. “We call on them to exercise restraint & engage with political efforts to spare Hodeidah a military confrontation,” he tweeted.

U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi said there was a danger Yemenis might try to flee across the sea to Somalia or Djibouti.

The Arab states say they will try to keep the port running and can ease the crisis once they seize it by lifting import restrictions they have imposed. Port workers told Reuters five ships were docked at Hodeidah port unloading goods, but no new entry permits would be issued on Wednesday.

Western countries have quietly backed the Arab states diplomatically, while mostly avoiding direct public involvement in the conflict. A major battle could test that support, especially if many civilians are killed or supplies disrupted.

The United States, Britain and France all sell billions of dollars of weapons a year to the Arab countries. Aid agencies urged President Emmanuel Macron to cancel a planned Paris conference on Yemen co-chaired with Saudi Arabia.

The operation began after a three-day deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis to quit the port.

“The liberation of the port is the start of the fall of the Houthi militia and will secure marine shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood,” Yemen’s Arab-backed government-in-exile said in a statement.

Its leader, exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, said his government had proposed compromises but would not let the Houthis hold the Yemeni people “hostage to a prolonged war which the Houthis ignited”.

A Yemeni anti-Houthi military official said the alliance had brought to bear a 21,000-strong force. It includes Emirati and Sudanese troops as well as Yemenis, drawn from southern separatists, local Red Sea coast fighters and a battalion led by a nephew of late ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on tankers entering the Red Sea, warned the alliance not to attack and said on Twitter his forces had struck a coalition barge. There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition.

The Sunni Muslim Arab states see the Houthi rise as expansionism by their Shi’ite foe Iran. They aim to restore Hadi, who was driven into exile in 2014.

The Houthis, from a Shi’ite minority that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962, say they took power through a popular revolt and are now defending Yemen from invasion.

Yemen has been in crisis since 2011 mass protests that ended Saleh’s 33-year rule. Hadi came to power in a Saudi-brokered transition, but the Houthis drove him out. For a time Saleh joined forces with the Houthis, but they turned on each other last year and Saleh was killed.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Hesham Hajali in Cairo and Hadeel Sayegh in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Peter Graff; Editing by David Stamp and Rosalba O’Brien)