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Saudi-led coalition bombs Yemen airport to prevent Iranian plane landing

The conflict in Yemen has exposed Saudi Arabia and Iran's deteriorating relations
Houthi militiamen walk on the tarmac of the Sanaa International Airport in Sanaa after the third day of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on March 28, 2015 (AFP)

Jets of a Saudi Arabian-led coalition bombed Sanaa airport on Tuesday to prevent an Iranian plane from landing in the war-torn country, Yemeni officials and Iranian state media reported.

A runway, a civilian aircraft and part of a terminal building at Sanaa international airport were destroyed after being struck by missiles.

The attack forced two Iranian planes that had flown into Yemen over neighboring Oman to turn back, according to a Yemeni official.

"The planes were carrying medical aid and entered Yemeni airspace this morning," the official told Middle East Eye via Skype.

"Iran had already announced its intention to do this, Saudi Arabia saw it as an act of aggression."

Yemen has been cut off from the outside world since Saudi Arabia and nine other Arab states launched a bombing campaign last month to reinstate Yemen's president and roll back Houthis who control the capital and much of the country.

As well as hitting missile depots, food factories and government buildings controlled by the Houthis, the Arab coalition has enforced an air and navel blockade, choking off imports of food and medicines to the country's 25 million people and leaving thousands of Yemeni nationals stranded abroad.

The Arab alliance's campaign against Iran-allied Houthi rebels has yet to loosen their grip over the capital Sanaa or beat back their gains in fronts across hundreds of miles in Yemen's south.

Hundreds of air strikes and dozens of ground battles across Yemen have left millions in the impoverished country hungry and 300,000 fleeing for their lives.

The attack on the airport angered some Yemenis in the capital who said that Yemen's infrastructure was being unfairly targeted and that the country was being dragged into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"The Saudis saw the Iranian airplanes so they just bombed our airports?" said Hamed, a Sanaa resident. "This is the problem, the Saudis attack us claming they are attacking Iran. If they want to go fight Iran they should do it directly," he said.

A Yemeni official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the Saudis may have made the right choice in bombing the airport.

"They had two options, shoot down an Iranian jet or bomb the runway. Shoot down means war. Rebuilding a runway is feasible," the official said. "But I'm troubled as a Yemeni. This is bigger than Yemen at this point. This is a proxy war."

When Saudi Arabia began dropping bombs on Yemen last month, one of its first targets was Sanaa International Airport.

The airfield in Yemen’s capital is used by both commercial and military aircraft, and was a strategic target after Houthi militants forced the country’s president to flee the country last month.

Propaganda war

A top Iranian security official on Tuesday accused Saudi Arabia of using "cold war era" scare tactics in Yemen, after an air drop of leaflets that criticise "Persian expansion".

The reference, to Iran's language and ancient name, was contained on white paper fliers released from Saudi aircraft in recent weeks.

As the Middle East's foremost Sunni and Shiite powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran are increasingly seen as vying for supremacy in the region.

"Dropping these leaflets, as untrue as they are, has the goal of frightening the Yemeni people," Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as saying.

The leaflet, in Arabic, said: "My brother of Yemen. The real goal of the coalition is to support the people of Yemen against the Persian expansion."

On Monday, Iran's Revolutionary Guards chief said the kingdom was verging on collapse as Tehran's regional position strengthens, accusing Saudi of "stepping in the footsteps of Israel and the Zionists" by bombing Yemen, the Arab world's poorest state.

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