The ballistic missile strike by Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen on Riyadh’s main international airport on November 4, 2017, is most likely a war crime, Human Rights Watch said today.
Saudi Arabia responded to the attack by claiming Iran, which it accuses of aiding the Houthi rebels who control much of northern Yemen, smuggled the missile to Yemen and announcing a “temporary” closure of all Yemeni land, sea, and air ports.
Saudi claims about the missile’s origin could not be verified and, according to media reports, Iranian officials denied the allegation.
Houthi-Saleh-aligned media reported that the armed group fired a Burkan H2 ballistic missile at King Khalid International Airport, northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Saudi media reported that its missile defenses intercepted the missile in flight, but that some missile fragments fell inside the airport area. No casualties were reported.
On November 6, the Saudi government said it was “temporarily” closing all Yemeni ports in response to the attack, but that humanitarian aid could continue to enter Yemen under strict coalition vetting procedures.
“The Houthis’ launching of an indiscriminate ballistic missile at a predominantly civilian airport is an apparent war crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Attack on Riyadh
Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, told the governmental Saudi Press Agency on November 4 that Houthi-Saleh forces fired the missile at 8:07 p.m. from Yemen toward Riyadh, but that the Saudi Patriot air and missile defense system intercepted the missile on the eastern side of the airport.
King Khalid International Airport is about 35 kilometers northeast of the densely populated areas of Riyadh. The airport compound includes a company that services and maintains military aircraft. While the site where Houthi-Saleh forces launched the missile is unclear, the airport is approximately 850 kilometers from the Yemeni border.
An attack with an unguided ballistic missile such as the Burkan H2 from this range is indiscriminate since these weapons are not capable of the necessary accuracy to target military objectives.
When deliberately or indiscriminately directed toward populated areas or civilian objects, such attacks violate the laws of war, and may amount to war crimes.
Series of attacks
The attack on Riyadh’s international airport is the latest in a series of indiscriminate Houthi-Saleh ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, though it was the first to reach the capital.
In October 2016, Saudi Arabia accused Houthi-Saleh forces of targeting the holy city of Mecca with a missile, which they claimed Saudi defenses intercepted 65 kilometers south of the city.
Houthi forces admitted they had launched a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia, which they described as a Burkan 1, but claimed the target was Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport.
In another attack, on July 22, 2017, Houthi-Saleh forces struck an oil refinery near the port city Yanbu, 300 kilometers northwest of Jeddah, with a Burkan H2 ballistic missile.
Human Rights Watch has documented the Houthi-Saleh forces’ indiscriminate launching of short-range unguided artillery rockets from northern Yemen into populated areas of southern Saudi Arabia since May 2015. Some of these attacks killed civilians.
After the attack, on November 5, Saudi authorities published a wanted list of 40 Houthi officials, offering financial rewards of between US$5 million and US$30 million for anyone who provides information leading to their arrests.
The next day the coalition announced it would close all sea, land, and air ports to Yemen temporarily, while declaring that humanitarian aid would continue to be allowed in after strict vetting procedures.
Yemen is experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with more than seven million people on the brink of famine and hundreds of thousands suffering from cholera.
Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country, have also violated international legal obligations to facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians and significantly harmed the civilian population.