World News

Airstrikes in Yemen Kill 68 Civilians in a Single Day

Posted December 28, 2017 5:23 p.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2017 5:24 p.m. EST

CAIRO — Airstrikes on a market and a farm in Yemen killed at least 68 civilians in a single day, including eight children, the U.N. said Thursday.

The two attacks occurred Tuesday, making it one of the bloodiest days for civilians so far in Yemen’s civil war. At least 109 civilians have been killed nationwide over the past two weeks, in a conflict that has intensified since the death of the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, this month.

Local Yemeni officials blamed the Saudi-led coalition for the airstrikes.

More than three years of fighting have turned Yemen, which was already the poorest Arab country, into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

On one side are the Houthis, Shiite rebels aligned with Iran who took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile. Those on the other side include an Arab coalition led by the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has waged a devastating air campaign since March 2015 to restore the government. So far, the conflict has only cemented a political deadlock.

One of the airstrikes Tuesday hit a busy marketplace in Attazziah, a district in the southwestern province of Taiz. That attack, the U.N. said, killed 54 civilians, including the eight children, and wounded 32 more.

The market was used to sell vegetables and khat, the narcotic leaves widely consumed in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It was hit during its busiest time, around 8 a.m., said Tawfeeq Al Sufi, a relative of one of the victims.

Sufi said that shrapnel struck his cousin in the abdomen. “Right before he bled out,” he said, “he gave someone his cellphone and said, ‘Call my family and tell them I died.'” The man had a wife and four children, Sufi said.

The other attack struck a farm in Hodeida, a province farther west, and killed 14 members of one family. The Saudis believe Iran is smuggling weapons to the rebels through Hodeida — a claim that remains largely unsubstantiated.

“These incidents prove the complete disregard for human life that all parties, including the Saudi-led coalition, continue to show in this absurd war,” Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. aid coordinator in Yemen, said in a written statement, adding that he was “deeply disturbed” by these attacks.

“There can only be a political solution,” he said, urging both sides in the war to abandon their “futile military campaign.”

McGoldrick’s statement did not confirm the Yemeni account that the airstrikes had been carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, but it did remind all sides, including the coalition, to “always distinguish between civilian and military objects.”

The market was not near any permanent rebel military installations, but it was close to the site of recent clashes between Houthis and pro-government forces. It remains unclear whether the farm was near any military targets. The U.N. and international aid groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of repeatedly attacking civil gatherings and residential areas.

Saudi officials vehemently deny this, and the United States supports their campaign in Yemen.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

The civil war in Yemen has killed an estimated 10,000 people and displaced at least 3 million. Much of the country’s infrastructure and health system has been destroyed by coalition airstrikes and rebel shelling.

Yemenis suffer from dire shortages of electricity, food and medicine. The collapse has led to the world’s worst contemporary outbreak of cholera, which has killed more than 2,200 and affected about 1 million people since April.

The death of Saleh — who became a strong ally of the Houthis, but was killed after publicly breaking with them — has further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, local and U.N. officials said.

The Saudi-led coalition has attempted to capitalize on his death by increasing its airstrikes to roughly 120 a day nationwide from about 80. The Houthis, meanwhile, have responded with a crackdown in the areas they control, arresting hundreds for real or imagined ties to Saleh, blocking the entry of humanitarian aid and shutting off access to the internet.