JEDDAH: Saudi forces destroyed explosives-laden boats and launched air strikes in Yemen on Saturday after Houthi rebel drones and missiles hit targets around the country, setting off an inferno at an oil plant within sight of Jeddah’s Formula One race.
Three people were killed in the operation against the booby-trapped boats, according to the Saudi-led coalition, which also carried out air raids on the Yemeni cities of Sanaa and Hodeida overnight.
It marked a violent seventh anniversary of the coalition’s military intervention in Saudi Arabia’s impoverished neighbour Yemen, after the Iran-backed Houthis had seized the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Thousands of people marched in Sanaa on Saturday to denounce a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly, according to the UN, and left millions on the brink of famine.
However, there were signs of diplomacy as a senior Saudi official told AFP the rebels had offered a ceasefire and peace talks in exchange for opening up Sanaa’s airport and the lifeline port of Hodeida.
“The Houthis put forward an initiative through mediators that includes a truce, opening the airport (Sanaa) and the port (Hodeida) and Yemeni-Yemeni discussions,” said the official, on condition of anonymity.
“We are waiting for it to be officially announced because they (Houthis) are constantly changing their words,” he added. No immediate comment was available from the rebels.
Four boats laden with explosives were destroyed at Salif, a Red Sea port north of Jeddah, a day after the Yemeni attacks on a televised F1 practice day spooked drivers and threw the race into doubt.
“We targeted four booby-trapped boats in Salif port, which is under preparation, and thwarted an imminent attack on oil tankers,” the coalition said, according to state television.
Drivers returned to the track for the final practice session after hours of talks with F1 and team officials late on Friday and safety assurances from the Saudi government.
“Drivers are not 100 percent happy (or) fully relaxed,” said Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto. “They are still concerned but they have listened to the reassurance and they understand it’s important to stay here and try to race.”
Regular media interviews were cancelled on Friday during the talks over the race’s future. But the pilots’ union, the Grand Prix Drivers Association, said it was a “difficult day for Formula One and a stressful day for us Formula One drivers”.