UN expresses alarm over civilian casualties in Yemen

Six days of Saudi-led airstrikes have killed nearly 100 civilians; UN says Yemen on 'verge of collapse'

Saudi-led airstrikes pounded Yemen's Houthi rebels for a sixth day on Tuesday, destroying missiles and weapons silos controlled by the insurgents as the United Nations expressed alarm over the conflict’s rising number of civilian casualties.

The military campaign, which a coalition of Sunni Arab states launched last Thursday, aims to halt the advance of Houthi rebels, who are largely part of the Zaidi offshoot of Shia Islam and have captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa; attacked its southern port city of Aden; and forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee abroad.

Since the campaign’s start, at least 93 civilians have been killed and 364 others wounded in five Yemeni cities engulfed in the violence, the U.N. human rights office in Geneva reported Tuesday. UNICEF, the U.N.'s children's rights body, later said that 62 children had been killed in the last week.

However, monitors said the overall death toll was likely to be higher, since it was not clear if the U.N.’s count was based solely on airstrikes or included ground battles as well.

Overnight and into early Tuesday morning, the coalition bombed rebels in Sanaa, according to Yemeni military and security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Warplanes, warships and naval artillery were all used to push back and deter the rebels and their allies, who are loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in 2012.

The airstrikes have targeted at least nine of Yemen's 21 provinces and prevented the rebels from taking over Aden, the former capital of the once independent south, where Hadi declared a temporary capital after fleeing Sanaa. The coalition says it is in full control of Yemen’s airspace.

Hadi, a close U.S. ally against Yemen's Al-Qaeda affiliate, fled the country last week but remains Yemen's internationally recognized leader. The U.S. has provided support to the Saudi-led coalition but is not carrying out direct military action.

Iran, which the coalition accuses of supporting the rebels, said on Tuesday that it sent an aid shipment to Yemen, according to the official IRNA news agency. According to the report, the delivery is Tehran’s first since the airstrikes began and includes food, medicine and medical equipment.

The conflict in Yemen marks a major escalation in the regional struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which also back rival sides in Syria's civil war. Arab leaders unveiled plans at a conference Sunday in Egypt to form a joint military intervention force in the region, which could raise tensions further.

Critics of the Houthis charge that they are an Iranian proxy. While Iran has provided aid to the group, it denies accusations that it has also transferred weapons and given military training to the rebels. "Claims about the dispatch of weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen are completely fabricated and sheer lies," Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Tuesday.

From Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal insisted that Yemen's security was integral to the Gulf Arab region's overall security. "We are not warmongers, but if the drums of war call for it, we are prepared," he said. "The Houthi militias and the former president [Saleh], with the Iranian support, insist on messing in Yemen."

The U.N. human rights office’s statement on Tuesday confirmed that at least 19 civilians were killed when coalition airstrikes hit a refugee camp near the Houthi stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen, with at least 35 wounded, including 11 children.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein on Tuesday said he was shocked by Monday's airstrike at the camp and called on all sides to protect civilians from harm and to resolve their differences through dialogue rather than force.

"The situation in Yemen is extremely alarming, with dozens of civilians killed over the past four days," he said. "The country seems to be on the verge of total collapse."

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had received more than 550 patients in the southern city of Aden since March 19 as a result of the Saudi-led bombing.

"We urgently need to find ways to get humanitarian relief and personnel inside the country," said MSF's Greg Elder.

He denounced reported attacks by Houthi-linked fighters on three hospitals in Daleh that caused an unknown number of casualties.

Amnesty International accused the Saudi-led coalition of "turning a blind eye to civilian deaths" as it reported four children were among six burned to death in strikes on Ibb, in central Yemen.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon separately said he was "deeply concerned" by reports of numerous civilian deaths from the military campaign against Shia Houthi rebels, who deposed internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in February.

But the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said it does not intend to kill civilians even though the Houthis had moved fighters into villages.

"Collateral damage can happen... but I confirm to you that the coalition takes all care," said Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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