Houthi rebels claim drone attacks a response to Saudi "crimes" in Yemen. The assaults are the latest in a series of security challenges faced by the Middle East, following the alleged sabotage of oil tankers off UAE coast.

General view of Aramco tanks and oil pipe at the Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia. May 21, 2018.
General view of Aramco tanks and oil pipe at the Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia. May 21, 2018. (Reuters Archive)

Saudi Arabia said drones attacked one of its oil pipelines as other assaults targeted energy infrastructure elsewhere in the kingdom on Tuesday, shortly after Yemen's rebels claimed coordinated drone attacks on the regional power.

The assaults marked the latest incidents challenging Mideast security after the alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates earlier this week and heightened tensions between the US and Iran.

Yemen's Houthi rebels, whom the Saudi Arabia-coalition has been fighting against since March 2015, said they launched a series of drone attacks on the kingdom, across the border from Yemen.

The spokesman of the rebels, Mohammed Abdel Salam, told The Associated Press: "This is a message to Saudi Arabia, stop your aggression."

"Our goal is to respond to the crimes they are committing every day against the Yemeni people," Salam added.

Oil targeted

In a statement carried on state-run Saudi Press Agency, Energy Minister Khalid al Falih said drones attacked a petroleum pumping station supplying a pipeline running from its oil-rich Eastern Province to the Yanbu Port on the Red Sea.

A fire broke out and firefighters later brought it under control, though the state-run Saudi Aramco stopped pumping oil through the pipeline.

The kingdom's state security body also said two petroleum pumping stations in the greater region of Riyadh, the landlocked capital, were targeted at the same time. 

The statement described it as a "limited targeting" of petroleum stations in areas al Duadmi and Afif in the Riyadh region, without elaborating.

Falih called the attack "cowardly," saying recent sabotage acts against the kingdom's vital installations not only target Saudi Arabia, but the safety of the world's energy supply and global economy. 

He said this reaffirms the need of the international community to confront the activities of groups like the Houthis. He also promised the production and export of Saudi oil would not be interrupted.

Benchmark Brent crude traded at $71 a barrel Tuesday, up $1.27 on the day.

The attack on Saudi oil targets comes after four oil tankers anchored in the Mideast were damaged by what Gulf officials described as sabotage, though satellite images obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday showed no major visible damage to the vessels.

Details of the alleged sabotage to two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati oil tanker on Sunday remained unclear, and Gulf officials have declined to say who they suspected was responsible. 

Iran's threat

But it demonstrated the raised risks for shippers in a region vital to global energy supplies as tensions are increasing between the US and Iran over its unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.

The US has warned sailors of the potential for attacks on commercial sea traffic, and regional allies of the United Arab Emirates condemned the alleged sabotage as the tankers were off the coast of the UAE port city of Fujairah.

A US official in Washington, without offering any evidence, told the AP that an American military team's initial assessment indicated Iran or Iranian allies used explosives to blow holes in the ships. 

The official, who was not authorised to discuss the investigation, agreed to reveal the findings only if not quoted by name. 

The US Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast and operates from a base in Fujairah, has repeatedly declined to comment.

The US already had warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could be targeting maritime traffic in the region.

US-Iran tension spills over

America is deploying an aircraft carrier, USS Abraham Lincoln, and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged, still-unspecified threats from Tehran.

On Tuesday, Spain temporarily pulled one of its frigates that was part of a US-led combat fleet from near the Persian Gulf because of mounting US-Iran tensions. 

The Ministry of Defense said the Mendez Nunez, with 215 sailors on board, will not cross the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf together with the USS Abraham Lincoln. The Spanish frigate was the only non-US vessel in the fleet.

Citing heightened tensions in the region, the United Nations called on "all concerned parties to exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace, including by ensuring maritime security" and freedom of navigation, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

Tensions in the region have risen since Trump withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and restored US sanctions that have pushed Iran's economy into crisis. 

Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.

The oil tankers were visible in satellite images provided Tuesday to the AP by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies.

A boom surrounded the Emirati oil tanker A Michel, indicating the possibility of an oil leak. The other three showed no visible major damage from above.

Yemen's war

Yemen plunged into civil war in 2014 when Houthi rebels captured the capital, Sanaa. 

A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 to help government troops facing the Houthi advance. 

Since then the conflict has killed some 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Human rights groups say the real death toll could be five times as high.

The war has pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine in what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The US supported the coalition for years despite its air strikes killing civilians, and is only recently beginning to step back after the October killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents.

This isn't the first time Yemen's Houthis have used drones as weapons — a bomb-laden drone launched by the rebels exploded over a military parade in January for the Saudi-led coalition, killing at least six people.

Coalition officials have recently displayed a series of drones they claim show a growing sophistication of the Houthis, starting first with plastic foam models that could be built by a hobby kit, to one captured in April that closely resembled an Iranian-made drone.

Those drones have been flown into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia's Patriot missile batteries, according to the research group Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged.

Iran has been accused by the US and the UN of supplying ballistic missile technology and arms to the Houthis, which Tehran denies.

Such drones remain difficult to shoot down with either light or heavy weapons. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies