Cairo: A Moroccan F-16 warplane that is part of the Saudi-led force carrying out air strikes in Yemen has gone missing, Morocco’s military said on Monday, and Iran-allied Al Houthi rebels and Saudi forces traded heavy fire across the border.
The disappearance of the Moroccan jet and the intense artillery and rocket battles could imperil an agreed five-day humanitarian truce in Yemen’s civil war due to begin on Tuesday.
The Houthi TV channel Al Masira broadcast video footage they say shows wreckage of Moroccan F-16 fighter jet said to have gone missing in Saudi-led combat operations.
Alleged photo of the reported wreckage of Morocco Air Force F-16 lost during Yemen operations.
Yemen's Al Houthi rebels said Monday that they shot down a warplane of the Saudi-led coalition.
"The air defence of the tribes shot down a warplane over Wadi Nushur, in Saada," the rebels' northern stronghold, Al Houthi news channel Al-Masirah said, broadcasting images of tribesmen celebrating around the wreckage of a plane.
The television said it was an F-16 fighter jet while the footage showed a Moroccan flag on a broken rudder lying on a rocky patch.
Morocco said contact was lost with the fighter and its pilot at 6 pm (1500 GMT) on Sunday, the official MAP news agency reported, citing an armed forces statement.
"A second plane which was flying in formation was not able to see whether the pilot ejected," it added.
A Saudi official said that an investigation was trying to determine the missing plane's approximate location.
"It is definitely inside Yemen and it is a single pilot on board," the Saudi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It is the first coalition aircraft to have been reported missing over Yemen in the more than six-week bombing campaign launched on March 26.
According to Moroccan press reports, the kingdom has deployed a squadron of six F-16s for the operation. Riyadh is a close ally of Rabat and a major donor.
A Saudi-led coalition backed by Washington has been bombing from the air Al Houthi rebels and army units loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh since March 26 with the aim of restoring exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Al Houthis’ ties to regional rival Iran have rattled the Gulf Arabs and the rebels remain the dominant force in the impoverished and chaotic Yemen, raising concern for the security of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, next door.
Morocco is one of eight Arab states to have joined Saudi Arabia in the military intervention against Al Houthi advances and has had F-16s stationed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“One of the F-16s of the Royal Armed Force put at the disposal of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia to restore the legitimacy in Yemen went missing on Sunday at 6pm local time,” Morocco’s military said in a statement.
The Al Houthis’ official news channel Al Maseera said on Monday that anti-aircraft guns had downed an F-16 over in the remote Wadi Nashour area in the northwestern province of Saada, an Al Houthi stronghold bordering on Saudi Arabia.
It provided no details and it was impossible to verify the claim as phone lines were down throughout the war-torn area.
The Al Houthis said they fired Katyusha rockets and mortars on the Saudi cities of Jizan and Najran near the border on Monday, after the Saudis hit Saada and Hajjah provinces in Yemen with more than 150 rockets.
Saudi planes also struck Al Houthi positions in the central city of Taiz and in the oil-producing province of Marib east of the capital Sana’a, which is under Al Houthi control.
Saudi-owned Ekhbariya TV showed Saudi buildings ripped open by apparent artillery shells but said there were no casualties.
Al Houthi TV reported Saudi artillery and air strikes on civilian areas and said 13 people were killed.
At least 10 Saudi soldiers and border guards have been killed by shelling across the border. A Saudi jet crashed into the Red Sea after the start of the campaign in March and both pilots were rescued.
The Al Houthis accepted a five-day humanitarian ceasefire proposed by Saudi Arabia on Sunday but said they would respond to any violations of the pause.
Riyadh had said on Friday the truce could begin on Tuesday if the Iranian-allied militia agreed to the calm, which would let in badly needed food and medical supplies for civilians caught in zones of conflict.
A group of 17 international humanitarian groups working in Yemen said on Sunday that a five-day truce was not enough to provide sufficient relief to the large number of Yemenis affected by the crisis. They demanded a permanent ceasefire to halt a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis”.
The relief agencies also condemned a Saudi warning to residents of Saada province on Friday to leave the area before it came under attack.
“Warning civilians does not exonerate the coalition from their obligation to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, and we have seen in the last days that the warnings have not been enough to spare civilian lives,” Save the Children’s country director in Yemen, Edward Santiago, said.