(Bloomberg) -- A missile fired by Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels hit a Saudi airport on Wednesday, wounding 26 people and ratcheting up regional tensions just as international efforts to avert escalation get underway.
The projectile hit the arrival section at Abha International airport in the southwest of the country, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. Yemen's Houthis said earlier in the day that they had used a cruise missile to target the airport, a claim that couldn't be independently verified.
The rebels have launched dozens of missile attacks on Saudi targets over the past four years. But the unusually-high casualty toll is the latest signal that the group's attacks on the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
A drone strike hit a Saudi Aramco facility hundreds of kilometers away from the Yemeni border last month, prompting the oil company to temporarily shut one of its key pipelines.
Saudi officials said that attack was ordered by Iran, but didn't provide evidence to back their claims. The U.S. has also blamed Iran for sabotaging tankers near the Persian Gulf using naval mines, a claim Tehran denies.
"The Houthi capabilities are getting better," said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Oxford University. "This is one sign of how the war has backfired on Saudi Arabia. It was intended to reduce Iranian influence but instead it has increased it."
The prospects of a showdown between the U.S., its Arab allies on one hand, and Iran on the other, have spiked since the Trump administration stopped granting waivers to buyers of Iranian oil early in May. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. last year from a landmark 2015 agreement meant to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon.
Bahrain, a member of the Saudi-led alliance fighting in Yemen, described Wednesday's incident as a "dangerous escalation carried out by Iranian weapons," Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa said on Twitter.
Saudi Arabia's benchmark Tadawul All Share Index trimmed gains after the kingdom's authorities acknowledged the attack. It was trading 0.4 percent higher at 1:18 p.m. local time. The civil aviation authority said the airport was operating normally, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported around midday.
The incident comes as efforts to defuse the tension between the U.S. and Iran kick into high gear. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left for Tehran on Wednesday for talks with top officials in a trip sanctioned by Trump.
(Updates from paragraph 3 with context, Bahrain comment, analyst.)
--With assistance from Abbas Al Lawati.
To contact the reporters on this story: Dana Khraiche in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org;Zainab Fattah in Dubai at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at firstname.lastname@example.org, Alaa Shahine
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