The Saudi-led coalition continued to intensify its military campaign in Yemen on Tuesday, with an airstrike along the country's coast reportedly striking a boat whose crew of 20 Indian nationals were said to be smuggling fuel from Djibouti.
A spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said on Wednesday that 13 crew members had survived while seven remain missing.
Citing accounts from local fisherman, Reuters reported that the attack took place near the Hodeidah port, located about 200 miles southwest of the capital Sanaa on the Red Sea. A diplomatic source in Yemen told VICE News the attack targeted two boats that were attempting to breach a Saudi-led blockade that has staunched the flow of basic goods and fuel. The Saudis claim the blockade is aimed at stopping weapons shipments bound for the Houthi rebels that toppled the Yemeni government.
A black market for fuel has arisen in Yemen, with prices well above their pre-war levels — if it's available at all. It's unclear if the two boats targeted by the airstikes were carrying anything but fuel. Pictures posted on social media showed them burning in the Red Sea. The Indian government did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
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Airstrikes also hit Sanaa and several other cities on Tuesday. Many residents described the bombings of the past several days — following the death of 60 Gulf soldiers in a rocket attack on Friday — as the heaviest since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March. Fighting also continued in the hotly contested city of Taiz, where Shia Houthi rebels have managed to keep a foothold following their retreat from areas further south, including the port city of Aden.
The bombings came as Saudi Arabia's King Salman makes his first visit to the United States, and as coalition countries bolster their ground forces for what they say will be an eventual ground offensive to capture Sanaa. The King, who took power earlier this year, has overseen Sunni Gulf States' most prolific — and deadly — military intervention to date. Since late March, some 4,500 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians.
'There is no consideration of collateral damage.'
Human rights groups and the UN have repeatedly flagged the coalition for killing civilians, and perpetrating what are likely war crimes. The Houthis, and allied forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have also been documented shelling cities indiscriminately, leading to massive civilian casualties. The rebels have also left a deadly trail of anti-personnel mines in the wake of their retreat.
The US, which is providing the Saudis with logistical and targeting support from a command center inside the country, has remained largely silent about the conflict's humanitarian and civilian toll, and American officials have said nothing about the possible legal implications of their support. Salman's meeting with Obama coincided with final discussions over a $1 billion arms deal for the Kingdom.
According to a recently leaked email sent by UN envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the Houthi leadership has made overtures to negotiators, and expressed a willingness to withdraw from several key cities, including Sanaa. In the email, Ould Cheikh Ahmed wrote that the Houthis and their allies were amenable to accepting a return of the official government — currently based in Riyadh after being driven into exile by the rebels — as long as it wasn't headed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Related: Leaked UN Email on Yemen Shows Difficulty of Negotiations — and Fears Over Al Qaeda's Growing Presence
It's unclear what those promises, made in recent weeks to UN staff in Oman, would translate to on the ground. For their part, the Saudis and their allies have insisted they will only accept a full surrender by the Houthis and Hadi's return, and they have reportedly viewed UN efforts as less important than their military aims.
Citing officials in Cairo, Reuters reported that "an unspecified number of Egyptian troops would" would arrive in Yemen on Tuesday. The Saudi-owned newspaper Arabiya reported that 6,000 Sudanese troops would also be involved in ground operations. Neither report could be verified by VICE News.
On Monday, Qatar said it would deploy 1,000 soldiers along with armored vehicles and Apache helicopters in an effort to retake Marbi Province. Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatari government, reported that more troops would be sent to fight in Jawf governorate.
"They are getting ready for a ground offensive on Sanaa, that's the objective," Charles Schmitz, a professor at Towson University and an expert on Yemen, told VICE News.
Schmitz said that despite private concerns among US officials over the civilian toll in Yemen, it was unlikely they would publicly attempt to curtail the coalition's moves. The US, he said, is trying to keep in the good graces of the Saudis after this year's nuclear deal with Iran, which the Kingdom opposed. The Saudis, meanwhile, view the Shia Houthi rebels as a proxy for Iran, and are more concerned with eradicating their influence than tackling the growing presence of al Qaeda in Yemen, something the Yemeni UN envoy has referenced.
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But an attack on Sanaa, a city of 2 million people, would doubtlessly lead to a massive death toll, perhaps surmounting the number of people killed already in the conflict.
"I've seen high ranking State Department officials say 'Ooh that's a lot of civilian casualties'… but they are not going to press it because it's too delicate of a situation for the United States," Schmitz said.
"There is no consideration of collateral damage," the professor added. "If they go in for a battle of Sanaa, there is going to be a huge refugee problem, then they are going to destroy the city."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
Watch the VICE News documentary Seeking Refuge in Djibouti: Escape From Yemen: