Saudi-led airstrikes kill 70 at a prison in Yemen

International Desk Published: 22 January 2022, 08:29 AM | Updated: 22 January 2022, 08:29 AM
Saudi-led airstrikes kill 70 at a prison in Yemen
Rescuers used cranes to remove the collapsed concrete roof of a detention center hit by airstrikes in Saada, Yemen.Credit...Naif Rahma/Reuters

The seven-year-old war in Yemen intensified again on Friday when airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition on northern Yemen killed at least 70 people and knocked out the entire country’s internet, according to international aid groups and the rebels who control the area.

Capping a week in which rebel drones struck as far away as Abu Dhabi and Saudi bombs rained down across rebel-held northern Yemen, the hostilities were fresh proof of the conflict’s obstinacy a year after President Biden took office vowing to bring the war - and one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters - to an end, reports The New York Times.

After months of territorial gains by the Houthis, the Iran-backed rebels who control northern Yemen, forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have managed to claw back some territory and shift the momentum of the war. Those offensives have snarled international efforts to push the two sides toward peace.

Friday’s strikes, which hit targets across Houthi-controlled territory including a prison and damaged the country’s internet infrastructure, raised the risk of heating things up even further.

In the northern city of Saada near the Saudi border, where an airstrike destroyed a temporary detention facility, the Republic Hospital had received around 70 dead and 138 wounded and could not take any more, said Ahmed Mahat, the head of Doctors Without Borders’ mission in Yemen. Two other hospitals in the city were flooded with growing numbers of injured patients, even as their medical supplies thinned, Doctors Without Borders said.

Yahya Shaim, a health official for Saada, said in a phone interview that the number of casualties had risen to 267, including 77 dead and 190 injured, adding that there were about 50 people still under the rubble.

“There are many bodies still at the scene of the airstrike, many missing people,” Mr. Mahat said in a statement, citing a Doctors Without Borders colleague in Saada. “It is impossible to know how many people have been killed. It seems to have been a horrific act of violence.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 100 people had been killed or injured overnight in the detention center in Saada.

Emergency workers were still combing the ruined building for victims as the day went on, the Red Cross said. Video broadcast on Al Mayadeen, a pro-Iran news channel, showed rescuers trying to clear rubble at the site to free people trapped in the debris.

Local media linked to the Houthis blamed the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting the Houthis since 2015. Though the aid groups were more cautious about assigning responsibility, the Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly bombed Houthi forces and territory, including civilian targets, throughout the course of the war, killing thousands of civilians.

The coalition ramped up attacks over the last week after the Houthis attacked a major airport in the U.A.E. - Saudi Arabia’s chief partner in the coalition - with drones and missiles on Monday, killing three people and wounding six, in what they said was retaliation for the U.A.E.’s support for pro-government militias.

Armed and trained by the U.A.E., those militias had recently reclaimed parts of Shabwa province from Houthi control and were encroaching on Houthi gains in oil-rich Marib province. Marib and Shabwa saw much of the worst fighting in Yemen over the last year after the Houthis launched an offensive last February to seize key oil infrastructure from the Saudi-backed government.

Another coalition airstrike early Friday morning hit a telecommunications hub in the port city of Al Hudaydah, severely damaging critical internet infrastructure and plunging Yemen into an internet blackout, said a telecommunications ministry official in Hadramout province who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the incident.

Save the Children said the strike killed three children who were playing on a soccer field nearby.

The country lost internet connectivity starting around 1 a.m. on Friday, according to NetBlocks, an internet monitoring group, and Cloudflare, a web security company, and service had not resumed by Friday evening.

The Saudi-led coalition responded to the Houthi attacks on the U.A.E. by striking the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana, on Monday evening, and killing what Houthi media said were at least 20 people, including the family of a Houthi military general.

On Friday, Mr. Mahat said the latest airstrikes had also hit Sana and its airport, and that the aid group had received numerous reports of overnight airstrikes elsewhere across northern Yemen.

But none appeared to have been as deadly as the attack on the prison in Saada. No other information about the victims was immediately available, but Save the Children said early reports indicated that most were African migrants, who attempt to cross through Yemen on their way to seek work in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries.

The Houthis first swept to power in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against Yemen’s authoritarian dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose successor, his deputy, struggled to contend with Yemen’s corruption, unemployment and a separatist movement.

After they overran the capital in 2014 and 2015, forcing the Saudi-backed government to flee, the Saudi-led coalition began targeting them, fearing that their Iranian sponsors would gain a foothold in Saudi Arabia’s backyard.

Now divided between Houthi control in the north and Saudi-backed government control in the south, Yemen has become the site of what aid groups say is one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with millions of people living in famine-like conditions, an economy in collapse and basic services, including many hospitals, in tatters.

Within a month of taking office, Mr. Biden had promised to push for ending the war in Yemen, partly by cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Yet as the Houthis gained ground last year, the Biden administration announced in November that it would sell $650 million of air-to-air missiles, which it classified as defensive weaponry, to the kingdom.

It was unclear whether the weapons used in the airstrikes had been provided by the United States, which in recent years has been by far the largest arms seller to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors weapons transfers.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke to Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Friday to emphasize “the U.S. commitment to help Gulf partners improve their capabilities to defend against threats from Yemen,” the State Department said in a statement, adding that he had “underscored the importance of mitigating civilian harm.” Mr. Blinken condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. on Monday, the statement said. Asked about the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen on Friday, the State Department declined to comment.

The Saudi-led bombings on Friday came on the same day that the United Nations Security Council, meeting at the request of the U.A.E., unanimously condemned what the council called the “heinous terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi” earlier in the week, as well as on sites in Saudi Arabia.

But Mona Juul, the ambassador from Norway and the council’s president for January, also told reporters she was appalled by vastly deadlier Saudi bombings in Yemen, including Friday’s strike on the prison.

“We are very concerned,” she told reporters outside the council’s chambers. “It’s not acceptable.”

Questioned about the severity of the strike, the Emirati ambassador, Lana Nusseibeh, said that the coalition “undertakes to abide by international law and proportionate response in all its military operations.”