- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2019

Iran-backed rebels in Yemen said Sunday that they had killed 500 Saudi soldiers, adding to soaring tensions between Iran and the U.S., which has backed a Saudi-led military campaign against the rebels for the past four years.

The claim by Yemen’s Houthis, who released a video purporting to also show the capture of some 2,000 Saudi soldiers as well as a range of Saudi military equipment seized near the border between the two nations, could not be independently verified.

Regional and U.S. officials scrambled Sunday night to determine whether the video was legitimate or a possible propaganda stunt orchestrated by Iran, whose foreign minister made separate headlines over the weekend with new warnings for Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the U.S. of initiating a cyber war with Tehran and asserted that “any war the United States starts, it won’t be able to finish.”

Mr. Zarif cited the Stuxnet computer virus, which drew global attention back in 2010 and was believed to be a joint cyber creation of the U.S. and Israel aimed at disrupting Iran’s nuclear program.

His comments in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” coincided with speculation in Washington that President Trump may be preparing similar types of cyber actions against Iran as an alternative to military strikes in response to recent a wave of violence in the Middle East the administration has blamed on Tehran.

In another twist, Mr. Zarif denied in the interview that Tehran seeks to interfere with the upcoming U.S. presidential election. While U.S. intelligence officials recently included Iran among nations they believe will attempt to tamper with the election, the Iranian foreign minister said Tehran has no preference over who wins.

Sunday’s developments came days after Mr. Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered competing speeches at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where U.S., Saudi and European officials all blamed Iran for recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.

Mr. Trump sought to rally world leaders to join a U.S.-led campaign to economically isolate Iran. He and other administration officials say their goal since pulling Washington out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal is to pressure Tehran into a new and wider negotiation that addresses not only its nuclear activities but its ballistic missiles program and support for militant proxies around the Middle East.

Mr. Rouhani and other Iranian officials have scoffed at the Trump administration’s allegations and pressure campaign, and have denied any involvement in the Sept. 14 attacks that hit Saudi oil facilities.

However, the Houthi rebels in Yemen — whom Washington and Riyadh claim are purely proxies for Tehran — have claimed responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil.

It was not immediately clear Sunday how the latest claims by the Houthis relating to the alleged killing of hundreds of Saudi soldiers may be tied to the dispute over who ordered and carried out the earlier strikes against the Saudis.

Images released by the Houthis during a press conference in Yemen on Sunday showed armored vehicles with stenciled Saudi markings, arms and ammunition that the rebels claimed to have seized near the border with Saudi Arabia in recent days.

According to The Associated Press, the video also showed fighting in a mountainous area, with Houthi fighters apparently attacking Saudi troops in armored vehicles. It showed what appear to be corpses and wounded men in Saudi military uniforms, several of whom identified themselves as Saudis.

But Saudi officials had not acknowledged the attack as of Sunday night, and several news organizations were casting doubt on the Houthi claims. The BBC ran with the headline: “Houthi rebels video fails to prove Saudi troop capture claim.”

A Saudi-led coalition of Arab powers has been battling the Houthis on behalf of an internationally recognized Yemeni government since 2015. In the past, the Houthis have claimed to have occupied Saudi villages after cross-border attacks, but often they enter a village, raise a banner, then pull out.

They have also held Saudi soldiers and officers captive in the past, using them as bargaining chips. Usually they force the soldier to show his ID and speak on camera as proof. This time they did not show IDs.

Yemen’s civil war has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis over the past four years. The United Nations has estimated more than 70,000 people have died as a result of the war since 2016. The BBC report on Sunday said 80 percent of Yemen’s population — more than 24 million people — need humanitarian assistance or protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.

American support for the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis has been a contentious issue among U.S. lawmakers in recent years because of accusations by human rights groups who say the coalition has repeatedly bombed civilians. Reports from Yemen have cited airstrikes that hit weddings, markets and even school buses.

• Includes wire service reports.

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