As a Saudi Arabia-led coalition pounded rebel positions across Yemen with airstrikes Monday, an apparent aerial bombardment hit a camp for displaced persons near the border of the two countries, killing dozens of people, aid workers said.
Panicked civilians fled Yemen’s capital, Sana, as thunderous bombing runs, answered by antiaircraft fire, shook the city overnight and again Monday afternoon. In the country’s south, rebel Shiite Muslim Houthis fought their way to the outskirts of the port city of Aden, the country’s commercial hub.
Outside Aden, Houthi fighters and their allies for the first time came under naval bombardment as they advanced on the city, the Reuters news agency reported. Egypt, which last week had dispatched warships to the area, did not immediately confirm whether its forces had carried out the strikes.
Yemen has spiraled into chaos amid the Houthi offensive, which began last year but has sharply intensified in recent weeks. The capital, Sana, fell to the Shiite Muslim rebels months ago, and the Houthis launched a major offensive targeting Aden after Western-backed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi took refuge there.
Hadi was forced to flee the country last week, and most foreign embassies have been shuttered, with some Aden-based diplomats fleeing to safety by sea.
In Sana, airstrike targets included an encampment of an elite military unit that has sided with the Houthis, located in the hills near the presidential palace, witnesses said. Other strikes took place in Marib province, east of Sana and home to electrical installations that power the capital, and in the country’s south, according to officials and witnesses.
In Hajjah province, which borders Saudi Arabia, bombardment hit the Muzraq camp in the district of Haradh, aid workers said. Casualty counts varied, with some reports saying up to 45 people had been killed. Mogib Hassan, a spokesman in Sana for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, reported that the dead and wounded numbered in the dozens, and said the agency “strongly condemned” the attacks.
A Yemeni journalist in Haradh, Mohammed Kbsi, said he believed the Saudis had mistaken the concentration of displaced people for Houthi forces. The U.N. said it was working to relocate the camp’s inhabitants to a safer area.
With fighting raging across Yemen, Arab leaders meeting in Egypt over the weekend declared their intention to form a joint Arab military force in response to the Yemen crisis and other regional conflicts. Monday marked the fifth day of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.
Saudi Arabia shares a long land border with Yemen. Though it is the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen is strategically crucial because of its position at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula alongside key shipping lanes.
The Saudi-led strikes have been targeting warplanes, weaponry and air bases that had fallen into Houthi hands, according to the Saudi military. Hadi’s rival, deposed strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, is aligned with the Houthis, but elements of Yemen’s military remain loyal to the former leader. That has given the rebels access to heavy weapons and bases to use as a springboard, powering their offensive against Hadi loyalists.
Analysts warn that the conflict has already taken on dangerous sectarian dimensions. The Houthis are backed by Shiite Muslim Iran, and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia is seeking to check growing Iranian power in the region.
Special correspondent Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer King from Cairo.
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