A suspected drone attack killed three people in a fuel tank blast in Abu Dhabi on Monday, officials said. Hours after Yemen's Houthi rebels announced a "military operation" in the United Arab Emirates, the group claimed responsibility for the attack and warned it could target more facilities.
Two Indians and a Pakistani died as three petrol tanks exploded near the storage facility of oil giant ADNOC, while a fire also ignited in a construction area at Abu Dhabi airport.
The Iran-aligned group claimed responsibility hours later, saying it had targeted "a number of important and sensitive Emirati sites and installations".
"The armed forces carried out... a successful military operation within the framework of an operation named Yemeni Hurricane," Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said in a statement broadcast on the rebels' Al-Masirah TV channel.
Police said "small flying objects" were found at both places, suggesting the sort of deliberate attack that is almost unheard of in the wealthy UAE, a renowned safe haven in the volatile Middle East.
"Preliminary investigations indicate the detection of small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones, that fell in the two areas and may have caused the explosion and fire," police said in a statement, adding that the incidents were under investigation.
The United Arab Emirates threatened reprisals against the Houthi rebels, warning "the UAE reserves the right to respond to these terrorist attacks and this heinous criminal escalation," a foreign ministry statement said, quoted by the official WAM news agency.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Gulf ally Bahrain both labelled the blasts a "terrorist" attack.
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree tweeted that the rebels' armed forces would "announce an important military operation in the UAE in the coming hours".
According to Abdul Ilah Hajar, adviser to the president of the Houthis' Supreme Political Council in Sanaa, it was a warning shot from the rebels. "We sent them a clear warning message by hitting places that are not of great strategic importance," he told AFP. "But it is a warning if the UAE continues its hostility to Yemen, it will not be able in the future to withstand the coming strikes."
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the suspected drone attack and called on "all parties to exercise maximum restraint and prevent any escalation," his spokesman said. "Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are prohibited by international humanitarian law," the spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, added in comments to reporters after the attack.
France on Monday also strongly condemned the attack. "These attacks threaten the security of the United Arab Emirates and regional stability," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, expressing France's "backing" for the UAE.
Drone attacks are a hallmark of the Houthis' assaults on Saudi Arabia, the UAE ally which is leading the coalition fighting for Yemen's government in a grinding civil war.
The rebels have previously threatened to target Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the gleaming crown jewels of the UAE, which last year opened its first nuclear power plant.
Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry condemned "in the strongest terms the cowardly terrorist attack" while Bahrain also slammed the "terrorist Houthi militia's launch of a number of booby-trapped drones".
The incident follows a surge in fighting in Yemen and comes two weeks after the rebels seized a UAE-flagged ship, the Rwabee, and released footage purporting to show military equipment on board.
The UAE said the Rwabee, whose 11 crew are now hostages, was a "civilian cargo vessel" and called the hijacking a "dangerous escalation" in the busy Red Sea shipping route.
The rebels later rejected a UN Security Council demand for the ship's immediate release, saying it was "not carrying... toys for children but weapons for extremists".
Yemen's conflict has been a catastrophe for millions of its citizens who have fled their homes, with many on the brink of famine, in what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The UAE joined the coalition against the Houthis before announcing a change of tack in 2019.
The pro-government Giants Brigade, backed by the Saudis and UAE, recently delivered a significant blow to the rebels by retaking three districts in Shabwa governorate.
The clashes were part of an upswing in violence in the shattered country, where the war is being fought on several fronts.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)