DUBAI, April 18, (Agencies): A Saudi helicopter came down during military operations in Yemen on Tuesday, killing 12 officers aboard, Saudi media reported, and a Yemeni defence ministry news website said the cause was friendly fire.

The death toll was one of the largest in a single incident involving Saudi forces since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to roll back the dominant Houthi group and restore President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. The official Saudi news agency SPA quoted a statement from the Saudi-led coalition as saying the Black Hawk came down in Marib province, east of the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa.

“As a result, four officers and eight non-commissioned officers from the Saudi armed forces were martyred,” it said, adding the possible cause of the crash was under investigation. But the Yemeni defence ministry’s 26 September news website quoted an officer in Yemen’s military high command as saying the helicopter was shot down 5 kms (3 miles) from its landing spot because of “a technical fault that caused a misreading of the air defence system, which resulted in the destruction of the plane before it landed”.

It provided no details on who fired at the helicopter. The Houthi-run Saba news agency said the helicopter crashed in an area known as al-Tadaween, northeast of the Marib provincial capital, and that 13 officers and soldiers had died. In September 2015, a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis at a coalition military base in Marib killed more than 60 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The Saudi-led coalition has recently made gains against the Houthis in western Yemen but fighting on other fronts, including Marib, has been static, with little ground changing hands. The Houthis seized much of northern Yemen including Sanaa in a series of lightning military operations that began in 2014, eventually forcing Hadi to flee.

The coalition accuses Iran of trying to use the Houthis to expand its influence in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries. Iran denies this. The Houthis regard their move on Sanaa as a revolution against corruption. Washington wants a return “as quickly as possible” to UN-backed Yemen peace talks, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said as he began a Middle East tour Tuesday in Saudi Arabia. The United States provides limited military support to a Saudi-led coalition which for two years has been fighting in support of Yemen’s government against rebels supported by Iran.

On Wednesday, Mattis will meet the kingdom’s top leaders in Riyadh. Washington provides intelligence as well as aerial refuelling to coalition warplanes conducting air strikes in Yemen with American-supplied weapons.

Rights groups have repeatedly criticised the coalition bombing campaign in Yemen for causing civilian casualties. Asked by reporters about the chance of stepping up American support, Mattis did not reply and instead put the accent on a return to peace talks. “Our aim is that this crisis can be handed to a team of negotiators under the aegis of the United Nations that can try to find a political solution as quickly as possible,” he said as he flew to Riyadh. Seven ceasefires alongside peace efforts by the United Nations have so far failed to stop the fighting. It is necessary to end the “firing of missiles provided by Iran against Saudi Arabia” as well as “the death of innocent people in Yemen”, Mattis said. Yemen’s Houthi rebels allied with troops loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Rebels have also shot short-range rockets over the kingdom’s southern border, killing least 130 soldiers and civilians. Washington alleges that Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, has shipped missiles to Yemen but Tehran denies the charge.

A United Nations Panel of Experts in January reported that it “has not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms” from Iran. Some in US President Donald Trump’s administration would like to increase American military support for the Saudi-led coalition to better counter Iranian ambitions in the region. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia regularly accuses the Shiite-majority Islamic republic of interference in the Middle East, and Mattis has called Iran the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. The UN estimates that more than 7,700 people have been killed over the past two years and more than 40,000 wounded in impoverished Yemen, continwhich faces a serious risk of famine. Riyadh has expressed optimism that Trump’s team will be more engaged in the region, particularly in containing Iran, compared with former president Barack Obama. In December, the Obama administration blocked a sale of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen.

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