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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Saudi Arabia intercepts missile from Yemen near Mecca

Latest rebel attack on holy city comes just a month before millions will gather there for Haj

A ballistic missile fired by Yemeni rebels was shot down close to Mecca late on Thursday, a month before the start of the Haj pilgrimage, the Arab military coalition fighting in Yemen said.

The missile was intercepted 69 kilometres south of the holy city in western Saudi Arabia, the coalition said, calling it "a desperate attempt by Shiite Houthi rebels to disrupt Haj".

This is not the first time the Iran-backed rebels have fired in the direction of Mecca, where some two million faithful from across the world are expected to converge when the annual pilgrimage begins at the end of August.

Last October the rebels launched one of their longest-range strikes against Saudi Arabia, firing a ballistic missile that was brought down near the holy city, an attack condemned by Riyadh's Gulf allies.

The Houthi rebels and their allies, former members of Yemen's security forces linked to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, began retaliatory attacks against the kingdom two years ago, after the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the country in March 2015 to support president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

The coalition said the new missile strike was proof of continued arms trafficking to the rebels through the port of Hodeidah on the Red sea.

"The missiles continue to be smuggled in due to a lack of controls at the port of Hodeidah," it said.

It said permits given by the Arab coalition for the delivery of humanitarian aid and commercial cargo were being abused at the port.

Hodeida is the main entry point for crucial humanitarian assistance to the north of the country and to the capital Sanaa, which has been under rebel control since September 2014.

The coalition wants to place Hodeidah under its control or that of the UN, which rejects the idea, fearing complications for the arrival of aid.

In the southern part of the country aid passes through the port of Aden, which was retaken from the rebels in the summer of 2015.

Yemen's war has killed more than 8,000 people and wounded 44,500.

The United Nations warned this week that a "vicious combination" of war, hunger and cholera have left the country in desperate need of aid, with nearly two million children "acutely malnourished".

The alarm was raised at the end of a two-day visit to Yemen by the directors of the World Health Organisation, the UN Children's Fund and the World Food Programme.