By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari
RABAT/CAIRO – A Moroccan F-16 warplane has gone missing while on a mission with Saudi-led forces in Yemen, Morocco’s military said on Monday, and Yemen’s dominant Houthi militia said regional tribesmen shot down the aircraft.
The disappearance of the Moroccan jet and intensifying duels of heavy-weapons fire across the border between the Iran-allied Houthis and Saudi forces could endanger a five-day humanitarian truce due to start in Yemen on Tuesday.
Backed by Washington, the Saudi-led coalition has been bombing 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 Houthis’ ties to regional rival Iran have rattled the Gulf Arab states and the rebels remain the dominant force in Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, regards the Houthis’ rise as a grave threat.
Morocco is one of eight Arab states to have joined Saudi Arabia in the military intervention against Houthi advances against Hadi supporters 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 6 p.m. local time,” Morocco’s military said in a statement.
The Houthis’ official news channel al-Masirah 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, a Houthi stronghold bordering on Saudi Arabia.
The channel showed gun-toting tribesmen on a rocky hillside pumping their fists and chanting, “Death to America!” One man, holding a piece of what looked like aircraft wreckage, said: “God felled this plane. Even though our weapons are basic and modest, we’ll shoot down all their planes, God willing.”