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Huthi, aid group: Death toll from prison airstrike rises to 82

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CAIRO (Reuters) – The death toll from a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a Yemeni rebel-run Houthi prison has risen to at least 82 prisoners, rebels and an aid group said on Saturday.

Meanwhile, internet access in the Arab world’s poorest country remained largely powerless as the coalition continued airstrikes in the capital Sanaa and elsewhere.

The airstrike in northern Saada province on Friday was part of an intense air and ground offensive that marked an escalation in Yemen’s long-running civil war. The conflict puts the internationally recognized government, aided by the Saudi-led coalition, against Iranian-backed rebels.

The escalation comes after the Houthis claimed a drone and missile attack that struck inside the UAE capital earlier in the week. It also comes after government forces, aided by UAE-backed troops and coalition airstrikes, recaptured the entire Shabwa province from Houthis and put pressure on them in the central Maribi province. The Houthis there have been trying for a year to take control of its provincial capital.

Ahmed Mahat, head of Médecins Sans Frontières, a charity mission in Yemen, told the Associated Press that his group counted at least 82 dead and more than 265 wounded in the airstrike.

The Houthi media office said rescue teams are still searching for survivors and bodies in the rubble of the prison site in Saada province on the border with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi coalition spokesman Brig. General Turki al-Malki claimed that the Houthis had not reported that the country needed protection from air strikes on the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross. He claimed that the Houthis’ failure to do so represented the usual deceptive approach of the militias to the conflict.

The Houthis used the prison complex to hold detained migrants, mostly Africans trying to cross the war-torn country of Saudi Arabia, according to the humanitarian organization Save the Children.

But Mahat, from Doctors Without Borders, said the airstrike hit a different part of the facility housing other types of prisoners and no immigrants were killed. Immigrants there are safe, he said.

Al-Malki said reports that the coalition aimed at the prison were inaccurate and that the coalition would correspond to the facts and details of the UN and the ICRC, according to Saudi state television.

The attack in Saada followed another airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on Friday in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, which hit a key telecommunications hub connecting Yemen to the internet. Internet access has remained largely powerless for more than 24 hours in the country, advocacy group NetBlocks said on Saturday.

The airstrike in Saada, one of the deadliest of the war, was not the first to hit a Houthi-run prison. In September 2019, an airstrike hit a detention center in the southwestern province of Dhamar, killing more than 100 people and injuring dozens.

Human rights groups have previously documented that Houthis use civilian prisoners as human shields by placing them in detention centers near military barracks under the constant threat of airstrikes.

Friday’s airstrikes in Saada and Hodeida have renewed criticism of the coalition by the United Nations and international aid and rights groups.

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and weddings, killing thousands of civilians. Houthis, meanwhile, have used child soldiers and planted landmines indiscriminately across the country. They also launched cross-border attacks using ballistic missiles and drones loaded with explosives in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The coalition continued its airstrikes in Sanaa and elsewhere on Saturday, targeting a military facility held by Houthi and an abandoned Yemeni state television headquarters in the capital. The coalition said the airstrikes also targeted Houthis in the disputed Harib neighborhood in Marib.

The UAE-backed Giants Brigades said they shot down three drones carrying explosives released by the Houthis in government-controlled areas in Marib and Shabwa provinces.

The rebels, meanwhile, held a funeral procession in Sanaa for a senior military official killed along with family members in a coalition airstrike last week. Hundreds of Houthi supporters attended the military funeral of General Abdalla Kassem al-Junaid, who ran the Air Academy, according to an Associated Press video reporter.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called on the warring parties to end the escalation of fighting and attacks across Yemen. We call on all parties to work for a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the conflict. The Yemeni people deserve to live in peace and determine their future, he wrote on Twitter.

The latest escalation comes almost a year after the administration of President Joe Bidens announced the end of US support for the coalition and lifted the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group as part of US efforts to end the heavy fighting.

The rebels have refused to wait for UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg in Sanaa since he was appointed in August. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the UN is engaged with countries linked to the rebels on the issue.

“It’s a big mistake for the Houthis not to accept our special envoy,” Guterres told a news conference on Friday. It is in their interest and in the interest of peace that our special envoy may go to Sanaa.

Houthi’s alleged attack on the UAE on Monday led Biden to say his administration would consider restoring the status of Iran-backed rebels as terrorists.

“Urgent de-escalation, plus steps to mitigate humanitarian and economic crises in Yemen are top US priorities,” US Special Envoy Tim Lenderking said in a Twitter post Saturday after meeting with Saudi and Yemeni officials in Riyadh. He then left for the United Arab Emirates for talks with Emirati officials, the official media of the United Arab Emirates reported.

The latest escalation of fighting has been the most intense since the 2018 battle for Hodeida and comes after a year of US and UN diplomatic efforts failed to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

The rebels have repeatedly stepped up against calls from the UN and the US to halt the offensive in the oil-rich province of Marib. The Houthis have been trying for a year to take Marib to complete their control of the northern half of Yemen. This is likely to give them a high hand in any future negotiations.

The coalition has drawn tensions to prevent a collapse in Marib and shift the conflict towards a military balance, said Peter Salisbury, a Yemeni expert on the International Crisis Group.

The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country began in 2014, when the Houthis took Sanaa and most of northern Yemen, forcing the government to flee south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US at the time, went to war months later in a bid to bring the government back to power.

The conflict has since turned into a regional proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters. The war also created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, leaving millions of people suffering from lack of food and medical care and pushing the country to the brink of starvation.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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