UN weapons experts are investigating how Yemen’s Houthi rebels have managed to boost the range of armed drones that can now strike deep into Saudi Arabia’s territory, according to documents seen by Gli Occhi della Guerra.
The UN’s panel of experts on Yemen is probing whether “foreign experts” helped the rebels assemble and upgrade their unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which can now hit targets some 1,500 km away.
Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against the Houthis in support of the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has blamed such arms transfers on arch-foe Iran and Hezbollah militants from Lebanon.
“Beginning in August 2018, the panel began noting the deployment of extended range unmanned aerial vehicles with a range that would allow the Houthi forces to strike targets deep into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” said the UN report.
Houthi rebels have increasingly used drones during the war, including last month’s hit on a military parade at Al-Anad air base in government-held Lahij province that killed at least seven people, including high-ranked Yemeni officers.
Rebel drones have travelled further. In July last year, a Sammad-3 armed drone carried out three strikes some 1,500km away on Abu Dhabi’s international airport. UAE officials denied the attack occurred.
In a similar incident in September, officials at Dubai International Airport denied knowledge of another raid, after a Houthi-linked television network described another Sammad-3 drone attacking the transit hub.
Long-distance drone strikes would represent a breakthrough for the Houthis, who have no air force and achieved most of their military gains in Yemen with assault rifles, missiles, off-roaders and rocket launchers.
Earlier in the war, from 2015 to 2016, the Houthis were limited to importing “complete or partially assembled weapons systems”, such as drones and ballistic missiles, from overseas, the experts said in the report.
“They now increasingly rely on imports of high-value components, which are then integrated into locally assembled weapons systems, such as the extended-range unmanned aerial vehicles,” said the report, which the UN released on Wednesday.
“The panel is continuing to investigate whether the Houthis are assisted in the process by foreign experts.”
The UN experts did not say which foreign powers they were probing, but in previous reports they have pointed to similarities between Houthi drones and ballistic missiles with weapons systems made in Iran.
Tehran has repeatedly denied that it provides military support to the Houthis, who seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014 and ousted President Hadi. Riyadh launched an offensive to push back the rebels and restore Hadi to power the next year, backed by the UAE.
The rebels control Sanaa and the key port city of Hodeidah, an entry point for most of the imports to Yemen and which has seen fierce fighting between Houthi and pro-government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The warring sides agreed to a ceasefire in Hodeidah during UN-brokered talks in Sweden in December, and UN monitors are on the ground overseeing a pullback of forces from the port in a mission that has made little progress.
The ongoing war has claimed the lives of at least 6,800 civilians, plunged Yemen into a dire humanitarian crisis in which 15.9 million people face severe hunger and has wrecked the national economy.
Government forces and the Saudi-led coalition have made “significant progress” on the ground against the Houthis, the UN experts said, but the “aim of restoring the authority of the government throughout Yemen is far from being realised”.
The various Saudi- and UAE-backed militias across Yemen share few “common interests” and are increasingly at odds with each other, leading to the “fragmentation of the country” into fiefdoms of “parallel security forces”, the report said.
In Yemen’s south, the UAE backs the Security Belt Forces and other militias who oppose Hadi and “continue to advance … secessionist aspirations,” added the experts.