Yemeni rebels hit oil depot in Saudi city hosting F1 race

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked an oil depot in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday ahead of a Formula 1 race in the kingdom. It was the rebels’ most publicized assault to date, although Saudi authorities have promised that the next grand prix will go ahead as planned.

The attack targeted the same fuel depot that the Houthis had attacked in recent days, the bulk plant in northern Jiddah, located just southeast of the city’s international airport and which is a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca. No injuries were reported in the attack.

The publicly traded Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, did not respond to a request for comment. Saudi authorities have acknowledged a “hostile operation” by the Houthis targeting the depot with a missile.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia leads a coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September 2014. The kingdom, which entered the war in 2015, has been criticized internationally for its airstrikes that killed dozens of civilians. the Houthis are pointing fingers as they launch drones, missiles and mortars into the kingdom.

Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the fire damaged two tanks and was extinguished without causing injuries.

“This hostile escalation targets oil facilities and aims to undermine energy security and the backbone of the global economy,” al-Malki said, according to the Saudi Press Agency. “These hostile attacks had no impact or repercussions in any way on public life in Jeddah.”

The Saudi-led coalition warned overnight that it would launch new attacks on Yemen, including the hard-hit port city of Hodeidah.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemned the attacks and called them “clearly permitted by Iran” despite an ongoing UN arms embargo. While Tehran denies arming the Houthis, UN experts and Western nations have linked the weapons in rebel hands to Iran.

In Tehran, authorities bathed its Azadi, or “Freedom” Square in a light projection showing the faces of Houthi leaders.

“At a time when the parties should be focused on de-escalation and providing the vital assistance needed by the Yemeni people ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, the Houthis continue their destructive behavior and reckless terrorist attacks on civilian infrastructure,” the official said. American secretary. of State Antony Blinken said separately in a statement.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the Houthi attacks on Twitter. “These strikes put civilian lives at risk and must stop,” he wrote.

An Associated Press photojournalist covering practice laps at the F1 track in Jeddah saw smoke billowing in the distance to the east just after 5.40pm. As the flames rose, the tops of the bulk plant tanks were clearly visible about 11.5 kilometers away. (7 miles) away.

Drivers ran into the evening even as the fire burned.

The second Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah takes place on Sunday, although some are concerned about recent attacks targeting the kingdom.

Hours later, F1 said plans for Saturday’s third practice and qualifying and Sunday’s race were still underway. The Saudi Motorsport Co., which promotes the race, acknowledged the attack but said “the race weekend program will continue as planned”.

We “remain in direct contact with the Saudi security authorities, as well as F1 and the FIA ​​to ensure all necessary safety and security measures,” the company said, referring to the motorsport governing body. .

“The safety and security of all of our customers continues to be our top priority.”

The al-Masirah satellite news channel run by Yemen’s Houthi rebels later claimed they attacked an Aramco facility in Jeddah, as well as other targets in Riyadh and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Saudi state television also acknowledged attacks in a city targeting water tanks that damaged vehicles and homes. Another attack targeted an electricity substation in an area of ​​southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border, state television said.

The Northern Jiddah Bulk Plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second largest city. It accounts for more than a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies and also provides essential fuel for the operation of a regional desalination plant.

The Houthis have twice targeted the factory in northern Jeddah with cruise missiles. One attack took place in November 2020. The latest took place on Sunday as part of a wider Houthi barrage.

At the time of the 2020 attack, the targeted tank, which has a capacity of 500,000 barrels, contained diesel fuel, according to a recent report by a group of UN experts examining the war in Yemen. Repairing it after the last attack cost Aramco about $1.5 million.

UN experts have described the facility as a “civilian target”, which the Houthis should have avoided after the 2020 attack.

“Although the facility also supplies the Saudi military with petroleum products, it primarily supplies civilian customers,” the panel said. “Had the factory been out of service for any significant period of time, the impact on the kingdom’s economy as well as the well-being of the people of the western region would likely have been significant.”

Cruise missiles and drones remain difficult to defend against, although the United States recently sent a significant number of Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia to resupply the kingdom amid Houthi attacks.

In September, the AP reported that the United States had removed its own Patriot and THAAD defense systems from Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh.

The attacks have renewed questions about the kingdom’s ability to defend itself against Houthi fire as a year-long war in the Arab world’s poorest country rages with no end in sight. It also comes as Saudi Arabia has issued an unusually stern warning that it is unable to guarantee its oil production will not be affected by further attacks – which could push global prices even higher. energy in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Benchmark Brent prices rose above $120 a barrel on Friday.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Malak Harb in Dubai contributed to this report.

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