At least 70 people were killed in an airstrike on a prison as Yemen’s long-running conflict suffered a dramatic escalation on Friday that drew condemnation from UN chief Antonio Guterres.
The Huthi rebels released gruesome video footage showing bodies in rubble and mutilated corpses from the attack, which leveled prison buildings in their northern heartland of Saada.
The Saudi-led coalition, which has been fighting the rebels since 2015, issued a statement on Saturday denying carrying out the attack.
Reports of the targeting of the rebel-held facility are “baseless and unsubstantiated”, coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki was quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency as saying.
The coalition official said the prison was not placed on a “no-strike list in accordance with the agreed mechanism” with the UN humanitarian affairs office in Yemen and had “not been flagged by the Committee International Red Cross”.
Al-Malki said the coalition would share with the two agencies “facts and details, as well as media misinformation” by the Houthis about the facility.
Further south, in the port city of Hodeidah, at least three children died when airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition hit a telecommunications facility while they were playing nearby, Save the Children said. Yemen also suffered a nationwide blackout.
“The children were reportedly playing on a nearby football pitch when the missiles hit,” Save the Children said.
Eight humanitarian agencies operating in Yemen said in a joint statement that they were “horrified by the news that more than 70 people, including migrants, women and children, have been killed…in blatant disregard for the lives of civilians”.
They said Saada prison served as a detention center for migrants, who accounted for many victims.
The strikes came after the Huthis ushered the seven-year war into a new phase by claiming responsibility for a drone and missile attack on Abu Dhabi that killed three people on Monday.
They came as the UN Security Council was meeting to discuss this attack at the request of the United Arab Emirates.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement on Friday called on “all parties to the conflict to defuse” and “respect their obligations under international humanitarian law” after the strike in Yemen and the attack on the Emirati capital.
– ‘Proportionate response’ –
The UAE has insisted that it and other coalition members remain committed to providing “proportionate” responses to Houthi attacks.
“The coalition is committed to respecting international law and a proportionate response in all its military operations,” said UAE Ambassador to the United Nations Lana Nusseibeh.
The Security Council unanimously condemned the “heinous terrorist attacks” by the Yemeni rebels, but in a statement ahead of the meeting, the Norwegian presidency of the Council also strongly condemned the latest violence.
In a later statement, the UN said Guterres “reminds all parties that attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure are prohibited by international humanitarian law.”
Aid workers said hospitals in Saada were overwhelmed after the prison attack, with one of them killing 70 and injuring 138, according to Doctors Without Borders.
Two other hospitals received “many injuries” and as night fell the rubble was still being excavated, the aid agency said.
– ‘Horrible act’ –
Ahmed Mahat, Head of Mission of Doctors Without Borders in Yemen, said: “There are still many bodies at the scene of the airstrike, many people missing.
“It is impossible to know how many people were killed. It appears to have been a horrific act of violence.
The coalition claimed responsibility for the attack in Hodeidah, a vital port for the shattered country, but did not say it carried out strikes on Saada.
Global internet watchdog NetBlocks has reported a “nationwide internet connectivity collapse”.
AFP correspondents in Hodeidah and Sanaa confirmed the outage.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when the Huthis descended from their base in Saada to overrun the capital Sanaa, prompting Saudi forces to intervene in support of the government the following year.
Tensions have skyrocketed in recent weeks after the United Arab Emirates-backed Giants Brigade drove the rebels out of Shabwa province, undermining their months-long campaign to take the key town of Marib further north.
On January 3, the Houthis hijacked a United Arab Emirates-flagged ship in the Red Sea.
And on Monday, they claimed responsibility for a long-range attack that hit oil installations and Abu Dhabi airport, killing two Indians and a Pakistani, and injuring six others.
The attack was the first deadly attack recognized by the United Arab Emirates within its borders and claimed by the Huthis.
In retaliation, the coalition carried out airstrikes against rebel-held Sanaa, which killed 14 people.
Yemen’s civil war has been a disaster for millions of its citizens who have fled their homes, many of whom are close to starvation in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.