Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed Monday to have shot down a Moroccan F-16 fighter taking part in Saudi-led airstrikes targeting them and their allies, just a day before a five-day humanitarian cease-fire was set to begin.
Morocco's military would only confirm that a jet had gone missing early Sunday evening, but an online news site with close ties to the kingdom's royal palace and security and intelligence services added the downed aircraft was one of two that flew out of a base in the United Arab Emirates on a reconnaissance mission over the Yemeni side of the border with Saudi Arabia.
The French-language site, Le360, said rebel anti-aircraft positions stationed atop mountains standing 1,800 meters (almost 6,000 feet) high opened fire on the two aircraft as they flew overhead at low altitude.
“The Moroccan fighter jets maneuvered, gained altitude, attempted to escape the danger, but it was too late. One of the craft was hit and went into a spin,” said Le360.
The purported downing of the jet fighter came as a Saudi-owned news channel, Al-Hadath, aired live footage of tanks and armored personnel carriers loaded onto giant trucks, saying they were part of a “strike force” deploying to the kingdom's border with Yemen. There have been no signs to suggest that a ground offensive was imminent, although the coalition has not ruled one out.
Photos purporting to show the wreckage of the Moroccan aircraft on social media networks depicted armed tribesmen and children posing next to wreckage that bore the North African kingdom's national colors of red and green. A corpse also was visible.
A video clip also posted on social media purported to show a reporter from the rebels' mouthpiece television station Al-Maseera visiting the site of the crash in the northern Saada province and tribesmen posing with parts of the plane's fuselage or triumphantly raising fists into the air. “This plane was downed by God,” shouted one tribesman.
It was Al-Maseera that first claimed the downing of the aircraft in Saada, birthplace and stronghold of the Houthi rebel moverment. Saada also borders Saudi Arabia.
The rebels and their allies in Yemen's splintered armed forces routinely fire anti-aircraft rounds at warplanes launching strikes in the country since the Saudi-led campaign began March 26.
Morroco's state news agency MAP, citing a military statement, said the pilot of a second jet said he didn't see the pilot of the missing fighter eject. The military said it had launched an investigation into the incident, without elaborating on a cause for the crash.
Morocco has six F-16 jets stationed in the United Arab Emirates taking part in the Saudi-led coalition, which includes a group of other Sunni Arab countries. The West says regional Shia power Iran backs the Shia Houthis militarily, something both the Islamic Republic and the rebels deny.
If confirmed, the Moroccan F-16 would be the second jet fighter to go down in the conflict. During the early days of the air campaign, a fighter jet crashed in the Arabian Sea off Yemen's southern coast, but the pilot and co-pilot were picked up by a nearby navy vessel. Technical problems were said to have caused that crash.
The raging conflict in Yemen has killed over 1,400 people — many of them civilians — since March 19, according to the United Nations. The cease-fire, scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. Tuesday, would help ease the suffering of civilians in the Arab world's poorest country, who have endured shortages of power, water, food and medicine as a result of a Saudi-led naval, air and land blockade.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch said the blockade is keeping out fuel needed for the survival of the Yemeni population, contending that it was a violation of the “laws of war.”
Yemen, it said, urgently needs fuel to power generators for hospitals overwhelmed with wounded and to pump drinking water. The coalition, it added, must urgently “implement measures for the rapid processing of oil tankers to allow the safe, secure, and speedy distribution of fuel supplies to the civilian population.”
All sides in the conflict have warned they will resume hostilities if the cease-fire is violated.
The situation in Yemen was expected to be discussed at a Camp David summit later this week between the United States and leaders of six Gulf, U.S.-allied Arab nations, but the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have said they would not attend.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's branch in Yemen has released a video purportedly showing the killing of at least 11 Yemeni army soldiers, who it called “apostates,” in the southern province of Shabwa. While it could not be independently verified by The Associated Press, the video corresponded to others released by the extremists and supporters of the group shared it online.
Yemen is home to what the U.S. considers to be the world's most active and dangerous al-Qaida affiliate, but a branch of ISIL recently surfaced in the country, taking responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings in Sanaa earlier this year that killed at least 137 people.
The emergence of an ISIL branch in Yemen adds yet another layer to the chaos gripping the country and threatens to give an even deeper sectarian slant to the conflict there. Zaydis, followers of a Shia doctrine that is exists almost exclusively in Yemen, account for just under a third of Yemen's estimated 25 million, mostly Sunni people. The Houthis are Zaydis.
The Associated Press