RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabian fighter jets have not attacked al Qaeda targets in Yemen, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on Saturday, denying a newspaper report that some strikes attributed to U.S. drones were made instead by the kingdom’s air force.
Britain’s Times newspaper on Friday cited an unnamed U.S. intelligence source as saying “some of the so-called drone missions are actually Saudi Air Force missions”.
Asked to comment by reporters in Riyadh on Saturday, Prince Saud said, “This is not true.” He did not elaborate.
Any evidence of Saudi involvement in air strikes in Yemen risks damaging Riyadh’s efforts to target militants there by complicating its relationship with the government in Sanaa and with Yemeni tribal leaders, who control large parts of the country, including areas where al Qaeda members are present.
Washington and Riyadh fear turbulence in impoverished Yemen could allow al Qaeda a launchpad to attack Saudi energy targets and crude tankers in the Red Sea, a major oil shipping route.
U.S. drones are used to target suspected militants in Yemen and other countries without risking ground troops or air crews. U.S. officials acknowledge the use of drones against al Qaeda internationally but do not discuss operational details.
Some of the leaders of regional wing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are Saudi nationals and they have sworn to bring down the kingdom’s ruling al-Saud family.
Western intelligence agencies have credited Riyadh with foiling attacks planned by AQAP on international targets, including airlines.
In November two Saudi border guards were shot dead in a fight with suspected militants attempting to cross the long, porous desert border.
Security experts in the No. 1 oil exporter say Saudi Arabia views militants in Yemen as its most immediate security threat.
The last time Saudi Arabia’s air force was actively deployed was during a late-2009 conflict with Houthi rebels in north Yemen who had carried out cross-border raids into the kingdom.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Louise Ireland