SANAA, Yemen — The United Nations refugee agency said Friday that tens of thousands of people have been displaced amid the latest escalation of fighting along Yemen’s western coastline.
The stark warning came as the leader of Yemen’s Shiite rebels announced that his forces have built drones and missiles that will be used against the Saudi-led coalition and would target the Saudi capital.
Yemen has been in the grip of a civil war since 2014, when Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies swept down from the country’s north and captured the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition has waged a blistering air campaign since March 2015, seeking to dislodge the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government. The conflict is made even more complex because an al-Qaida branch and its rival, the Islamic State affiliate, have exploited the chaos and grown in number and power.
The war has destroyed much of Yemen’s infrastructure and thousands of civilians have been killed.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said that 34,000 people fled their homes after fierce fighting erupted in the port towns of Mokha and Dhubab on the Red Sea. The majority of the displaced are headed to the outskirts of the war-torn city of Taiz in western Yemen, he said.
Yemeni forces, allied with the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi that is backed by the Saudi-led coalition of mostly Gulf Arab states, have recently seized Mokha and plan to push northward.
In a speech aired on al-Masirah TV, the Houthi rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi offered no evidence or figures for the number of drones and missiles allegedly manufactured by the rebels but the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition, has recently accused the Shiite power Iran of providing the Houthis with drones.
The speech also followed a Houthi claim earlier in the week that they targeted Riyadh with missiles.
There was no immediate comment from the kingdom but a week ago, Saudi Arabia said a “suicide gunboat” belonging to the Iran-backed Houthis rammed into one of its frigates in the Red Sea, killing two crew members. Saudis see the Houthis as a proxy of Iran, the Sunni kingdom’s key regional rival.
Efforts to reach a peaceful settlement to Yemen conflict have stalled after series of peace talks in Geneva and Kuwait ended with no deal, most recently in the summer last year.
On Friday, top Houthi official Saleh al-Sammad called upon new U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres not to extend the mission of U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, accusing him of failure. He also called for the reopening of the Sanaa International Airport which the coalition has shut down since the collapse of the peace talks.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.