The UAE has pledged reprisals after a drone attack claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels triggered a fuel tank blast that killed three people in Abu Dhabi.
The United Arab Emirates is part of a Saudi-led military coalition that supports Yemen’s government against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who have repeatedly targeted Saudi Arabia with cross border attacks.
But Monday’s attack is the first deadly assault on its own soil acknowledged by the UAE and claimed by the rebels, who said they had fired ballistic missiles and deployed armed drones.
Two Indians and a Pakistani working for oil giant ADNOC died as three petrol tanks exploded near a storage facility, while a fire also ignited in a construction area at Abu Dhabi airport in the heart of the UAE.
“Preliminary investigations indicate the detection of small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones, that fell in the two areas and may have caused the explosion and fire,” the police said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM, adding that they had opened an investigation.
Meanwhile, Yahya Saree, the military spokesman of the Houthis said the group had “carried out … a successful military operation” against “important and sensitive Emirati sites and installations” using both ballistic missiles and drones.
He also urged civilians and foreign firms to “stay away from vital installations” in the UAE for “their own security”.
Emirati presidential adviser Anwar Gargash condemned the “heinous” attack.
“UAE authorities … are dealing … with the heinous Houthi attack on some civilian installations in Abu Dhabi,” he tweeted.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan also described the attack as a “heinous criminal escalation”.
“We condemn the Houthi terrorist militia’s targeting of civilian areas and facilities on UAE soil today … this sinful targeting will not go unpunished,” he said in a statement.
The UAE had largely scaled down its military presence in Yemen in 2019 but continues to hold sway through the Yemeni forces it armed and trained.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, who has reported extensively on Yemen, said the Houthi attack was carried out as a “show of defiance to the Saudis and the Emiratis”.
“The Houthis are saying despite more than seven years of massive campaigns against us, we are more powerful than before … we have managed to further upgrade our military capabilities to the point that we can launch daring attacks inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
The Houthis have used bomb-laden drones to launch crude and imprecise attacks at Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The group has also launched missiles at Saudi airports, oil facilities and pipelines, as well as used booby-trapped boats for attacks on key shipping routes.
Yemen’s government-aligned forces, aided by the UAE-backed Giants Brigades and with help from Saudi air raids, reclaimed the entire southern province of Shabwa from the Houthis earlier this month and made advances in nearby Marib province.
Reporting from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Attab quoted the Houthis’ minister of information as saying that the “attack inside the United Arab Emirates is to teach them a lesson, in order to stop their involvement and participation in the Saudi-led coalition”.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation all condemned the “terrorist” attack.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said his country will hold the Houthi group accountable after they claimed responsibility for the incident, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the attacks in a phone call with his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.
The Houthis’ latest statement comes two weeks after they seized a UAE-flagged ship off the Yemen coast, and released footage purporting to show military equipment on board.
The UAE said the Rwabee, whose 11 crew are now hostages, was a “civilian cargo vessel” and called the hijacking a “dangerous escalation” in the busy Red Sea shipping route.
The Houthis later rejected a UN Security Council demand for the ship’s immediate release, saying it was “not carrying … toys for children but weapons for extremists”.
Yemen’s years-long conflict has caused what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving many on the brink of famine.
“The humanitarian crisis further continues to deteriorate,” al-Attab said. “The Yemeni people continue to suffer from the shortage of fuel and lack of opportunities.”