Huge fire near Saudi F1 track as Yemen rebels attack oil facilities

[JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia] A Yemeni rebel attack on a Saudi oil plant set off a huge fire near Jeddah's Formula One circuit during televised practice sessions on Friday, part of a wave of assaults on Aramco facilities.

Smoke billowed near the circuit and the second practice was delayed in the highly visible attack, one of 16 drone-and-missile attacks by the Iran-backed rebels around the kingdom.

The wave of assaults comes ahead of the seventh anniversary of a Saudi-led coalition's military intervention against the rebels in Yemen, a country in the grip of a major humanitarian crisis.

Oil prices have soared since Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked supply fears, prompting Western powers to implore Saudi Arabia and other members of the Opec cartel to ramp up production.

Friday's attacks targeted "Aramco facilities in Jeddah and vital facilities in the capital of the Saudi enemy, Riyadh", tweeted Huthi military spokesman Yahya Saree.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed rebels confirmed the Jeddah attack.

The rebels have frequently launched similar assaults on Saudi oil facilities but the Jeddah attack came as a worldwide audience tuned in for the F1 Grand Prix.

A F1 spokesperson gave assurances that "the event can continue as planned" as the delayed second practice session got underway.

"I can smell burning... is it my car?" Red Bull's world champion Max Verstappen said earlier over the team radio, during the first practice session.

A Saudi energy ministry official renewed a warning made earlier this week that Huthi attacks could affect the country's "production capacity and its ability to fulfil its obligations to global markets".

"They (rebels) are trying to impact the nerve-centre of the world economy," the coalition said in a statement. "These attacks have no impact on life in Jeddah," it added.

The US State Department condemned the attacks, calling them "unacceptable".

"We will continue to work with our Saudi partners to strengthen their defences while also working to advance a durable resolution that ends the conflict in Yemen," said State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter.

The rebel attacks also hit an electrical station and a water facility in Jizan province, which borders Yemen.

'DIRECT THREAT' TO OIL SUPPLIES

The Saudi-led coalition intervened to support Yemen's internationally recognised government in 2015, after the rebels seized the capital Sanaa the previous year.

The war has killed hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly and left millions on the brink of famine in what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world's biggest oil exporters, warned this week that rebel attacks posed a "direct threat" to global supplies.

Saudi Arabia "will not incur any responsibility" for shortages in oil supplies in light of the Iran-backed Huthi attacks, the foreign ministry said.

The statement on Monday came after the kingdom acknowledged a temporary drop in production after the Huthis attacked a refinery with an armed drone.

Formula One is one of a number of high-profile events brought to Saudi Arabia in recent years, drawing accusations of 'sportswashing' - using sports events to distract from criticism of the country's human rights record.

A French driver was seriously injured in a blast at the Dakar Rally hosted by Saudi Arabia in December. French investigators blamed an explosive device planted on his car.

Saudi Arabia executed 81 people on a single day earlier this month, prompting condemnation from human rights activists who questioned whether the prisoners received a fair trial.

The executions came just days before a visit by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who failed to secure any Saudi promises to pump more oil to help stabilise oil markets.

Johnson, who met the de facto, 36-year-old ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, became one of the few Western leaders to visit Saudi Arabia since the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

"I fully condemn the latest Huthi attack against critical sites in Saudi Arabia, including in Jeddah," the British leader tweeted on Friday. "These strikes put civilian lives at risk and must stop." AFP

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