Dozens of people have been killed in an air raid on a prison in northern Yemen, a Houthi official and medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) have said, after a night of deadly bombing underlined a dramatic escalation in violence in the country’s long-running conflict.
A Saudi-led military coalition has intensified attacks on what it has said are military targets linked to the Houthi rebel movement, after the Houthis conducted an unprecedented assault on coalition member the United Arab Emirates on Monday and launched missiles and drones at Saudi cities.
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Footage released by the Houthis on Friday showed rescue workers pulling bodies from out of the rubble, following the dawn raid on the temporary detention centre in Saada.
Taha al-Motawakel, health minister in the Houthi government, which controls the country’s north, told The Associated Press news agency that 70 detainees were killed at the prison. He said the death toll was expected to rise since many of the wounded were seriously hurt.
An MSF spokesperson told the AFP news agency at least 70 people were killed and 138 others were wounded in the attack.
The figures came from one hospital in Saada, the spokesperson said, adding, “Two others in the city have received many wounded as well and the rubble is still being searched.”
Further south in the key port city of Hodeidah, video released by the Houthis showed bodies in the rubble and dazed survivors after an overnight air attack carried out by the Saudi-led coalition took out a telecommunications hub. Yemen suffered a nationwide internet blackout, a web monitor said.
NetBlocks said the internet disruption began around 1am local time (22:00 GMT on Thursday) and affected TeleYemen, the state-owned monopoly that controls internet access in the country.
We can’t reach out to any of our beloved ones in Yemen after #saudi/#UAE airstrikes hit the Telecom company in #hudaidah. This is concerning as air strikes have intensified during the last days targeting civilians incl. children in #Sanaa #hudadah
— Sarah Alareqi-سارة العريقي (@SarahAreqi) January 21, 2022
The San Diego-based Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis and San Francisco-based internet firm CloudFlare also noted a nationwide outage affecting Yemen beginning around the same time.
More than 12 hours later, the internet remained down. The Norwegian Refugee Council condemned the attack as “a blatant attack on civilian infrastructure that will also impact our aid delivery.”
According to the UK-based charity Save the Children, at least three children were killed in the Hodeidah air raid.
“The children were reportedly playing on a nearby football field when missiles struck the port town of Hodeidah,” it said in a statement.
The organisation said at least 60 people were killed in the air raid in Saada and more than 100 others wounded, most of them migrants, it added.
“The initial casualties report from Saada is horrifying,” Gillian Moyes, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen, said in a statement.
“Migrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, Yemeni civilians injured by the dozens is a picture we never hoped to wake up to in Yemen.”.
The Saudi-led military coalition said the reports would be fully investigated.
“We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are, using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” said coalition spokesman Brigadier-General Turki al-Malki.
The attacks on Yemen were also condemned by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In a statement, the UN said Guterres “reminds all parties that attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure are prohibited by international humanitarian law”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also call for calm.
“The escalation in fighting only exacerbates a dire humanitarian crisis and the suffering of the Yemeni people,” he said in a statement released by the State Department on Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Attab, reporting from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said thousands of Houthi supporters took to the streets in Sanaa and other cities across Yemen to condemn the air raids.
The air raids came five days after the Houthis claimed a drone-and-missile attack on the United Arab Emirates that killed three people and prompted warnings of reprisals.
According to Save the Children, the escalation of the conflict resulted in a 60 percent increase in civilian casualties in the last three months of 2021, with 2022 already poised to have wider consequences for civilians.
The United Nations Security Council was due to meet at 15:00 GMT on Friday in an emergency session on the Houthi attacks against the UAE, at the request of the Gulf state, which has occupied one of the non-permanent seats on the council since January 1.
A statement released by the UN body before the meeting condemned the latest attacks in Yemen.
“We are very concerned… It’s not acceptable,” Mona Juul, the Norwegian ambassador to the UN, said.
Juul called for “de-escalation and restraint” in the conflict, and also condemned the deadly attacks on Abu Dhabi earlier this week claimed by the Houthis as “heinous terrorist attacks” and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting the rebels since 2015, in an intractable conflict that has displaced millions of Yemenis and left them on the brink of famine.
The coalition said it carried out air raids in Hodeidah, a lifeline port for the shattered country, but did not say it had carried out any raids on Saada.
Saudi Arabia’s state news agency said the coalition carried out “precision air strikes … to destroy the capabilities of the Houthi militia in Hodeidah”.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when the Houthis overran the capital Sanaa, prompting Saudi-led forces to intervene to prop up the government the following year.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks after the UAE-backed Giants Brigade drove the rebels out of Shabwa province, undermining their months-long campaign to take the key city of Marib further north.
On January 3, the Houthis hijacked a United Arab Emirates-flagged ship in the Red Sea, prompting a warning from the coalition that it would target rebel-held ports.
The ship’s 11 international crew members are being held captive.
And on Monday, they claimed a long-range attack that struck oil facilities and the airport in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, killing two Indians and a Pakistani, and wounding six other people.
The attack – the first deadly assault acknowledged by the UAE inside its borders and claimed by the Houthis – opened up a new front in Yemen’s war and sent regional tensions soaring.
In retaliation, the coalition carried out air raids against rebel-held Sanaa that killed 14 people.
The UN has estimated the war killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease.
UAE presidential adviser Anwar Gargash warned the country would exercise its right to defend itself after the Abu Dhabi attack.
“The Emirates have the legal and moral right to defend their lands, population and sovereignty, and will exercise this right to defend themselves and prevent terrorist acts pursued by the Houthi group,” he told US special envoy Hans Grundberg, according to the official WAM news agency.