The airstrikes being carried out in Yemen by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition have killed dozens of civilians in a northern city, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Tuesday.
A total of 59 people, including at least 35 children, died as a result of 12 bombings in the city of Saada between April 6 and May 11 which apparently violated international humanitarian law, said the US-based NGO. All of the victims were reportedly non-combatants.
Saada is a stronghold of the Houthi rebels — the group loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh which has taken control of much of Yemen since last September and which the airstrikes is targeting — but the bombs destroyed or damaged a school, homes, five marketplaces and a petrol station as civilian motorists queued for fuel, HRW said. No evidence that any of the sites were being used for military purposes was found, HRW's Ole Solvang, who was part of the investigative team that visited Saada, told VICE News.
The coalition appeared to have "systematically" targeted Sadaa's marketplaces, he said, destroying almost all the markets in the city and contributing to a dire humanitarian situation that has left residents without power and with little food.
In the worst single loss of life, attack jets bombed a cultural center being used to broadcast Houthi propaganda and also hit an adjacent house, killing 27 members of the al-Ibbi family, including 17 children.
Only one of those present, Walid al-Ibbi, 35, survived. "Just earlier that evening, a family had come to our house to ask for my daughter's hand in marriage for their son," he told HRW. "Now I have lost my wife and all four of my daughters. I cannot believe that everyone I love is gone."
The report documents the damage and destruction of hundreds of other buildings and notes that the impact sites and weapons remnants recovered indicate the use of large-scale blast and fragmentation weapons in residential zones. "It's clear that they used weapons that were very powerful and in some cases, weapons that were not precise enough," said Solvang, a senior researcher with HRW's emergencies division. "The fundamental problem is using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas."
Watch the VICE News documentary: Inside War-Torn Yemen: Sanaa Under Attack
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There are a number of Houthi bases outside Saada, but the only significant military equipment encountered by the investigative team within the city itself were a small number of vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft guns.
HRW urged Saudi Arabia and its coalition to investigate these apparent violations of the laws of war and to alter its strategy to avoid similar incidents in future. "What we're hoping for is that they pay close attention to the report and will be more careful going forward in terms of what they're targeting and in particular in terms of using large bombs in populated areas," Solvang said. So far HRW had sent two letters to Saudi authorities on the topic and met with officials at the embassy in the US, he said, but had yet to receive "any substantial replies" to queries over the targeting of strikes and precautions taken to minimize civilian casualties.
The Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries began launching strikes on the Houthis on March 26 in an attempt to stop the rebels' advance across the country. So far they have had little success in dislodging them from captured territory, while being criticized for killing hundreds of civilians and causing a humanitarian "catastrophe."
Yemen's political transition since former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2012's Arab Spring-inspired uprising had been widely seen as a rare success story. But the impoverished state has been increasingly troubled since the Houthis swept down from their northern homelands in September and overran the capital of Sanaa. The group went on to dislodge President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's internationally-recognized government, which has been exiled in the Saudi capital of Riyadh since February.
Hadi's loyalists are still battling the Houthis and some allied army remnants which back Saleh. The avowedly anti-America and anti-Israeli rebels are believed to be backed by Iran and are accused of being used by former autocrat Saleh to restore his power and influence in the country.
The World Health Organization said earlier this month that as of June 7, more than 2,500 people had been killed and a further 11,065 wounded in the fighting. About 20 million people, almost 80 percent of the country's population, are now in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. Energy, food, and medicine prices have skyrocketed since the fighting began; fuel shortages have closed down many hospitals, and humanitarian agencies are at risk of being unable to operate at all.
UN-led peace talks hoped to achieve a humanitarian ceasefire held in Geneva this month collapsed without reaching agreement.
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