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Corpses Pile Up in the Streets of Aden as Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis Deepens

Observers on the ground in Yemen told VICE News that the situation in the besieged port city of Aden is dire, with "piles of corpses rotting in the streets" and residents desperate for food and water.
Imagen por Wail Shaif Thabet/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Houthi rebel forces and their allies are continuing to advance on Aden, a coastal city in southern Yemen, with heavy gun battles and shelling Monday creating a humanitarian crisis that is deepening by the day.

According to the United Nations, at least 500 people — including 62 children — have been killed and 1,700 injured in fighting across Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes in the country 12 days ago.

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Observers on the ground in Yemen told VICE News the casualty count is likely much higher than the official UN figures.

"There are piles of corpses rotting in the streets in some districts, it's impossible to collect and bury them, so no one can know the number of dead," Bashraheel Bashraheel, a journalist for Yemeni newspaper Al-Ayyam, said by telephone from Aden.

Bashraheel described the situation inside the besieged city — now being bombarded from land, sea, and air — as "dire," with hospitals "full three times their capacity." Desperate for food and water, residents have resorted to drinking "from dirty buckets in old wells," he said. Electricity has reportedly been down for several days in large swathes of the city.

"There is fighting all around Aden, it's not possible to exit or enter on any highway anymore," Bashraheel said. "The Houthis have checkpoints on all the main routes through the city. It's not possible to move between districts. There are snipers on the roof, people are terrified."

Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi established a temporary capital in Aden in late February after he escaped from Houthi house arrest at his official residence in Sanaa. Hadi then fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia in March as the rebels advanced on Aden, and the city is now considered the final stronghold of forces loyal to the deposed president.

Related: Greed, brutality, and an unraveling coup in Yemen 

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The rebels and Hadi loyalists, also known as "Popular Committees," have played a deadly game of cat and mouse across the city. The Saudi-led coalition, which supports Hadi, has launched near-nightly airstrikes on Houthi positions and made weapons drops to the loyalist forces.

In a statement released Saturday, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) called for an immediate 24-hour ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the country, and access to food and water for residents in areas with heavy fighting. "Otherwise, put starkly, many more people will die," Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC's operations in the Near and Middle East, said. "For the wounded, their chances of survival depend on actions within hours, not days."

The Red Cross also reported that three of its humanitarian workers were "deliberately killed" in the last week while they carried out their duties, including distributing aid and retrieving bodies.

In Sanaa, a rebel stronghold, locals reported continuing airstrikes, a worsening humanitarian situation, and a ferocious clampdown by the Houthis on opposition forces.

Related: Why Yemen is like Scotland—and could be a choke point for a lot of the world's oil 

"There are a lot of attacks on activists and journalists, most have fled the city because they fear for their safety, it's a very dark situation," Kahled al-Hammadi, a freelance journalist who has fled to a hiding place outside the capital, told VICE News by telephone.

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According to local media reports, Houthi gunmen stormed the offices of Islah, a Yemeni Islamist party, and detained around 100 members of the group after it expressed support for the Saudi-led operation.

Elsewhere in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has long had a foothold in the country's southeast, reportedly used improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades in an assault on Al-Mulkalla, the capital of the oil-rich Hadhramaut province. Local media said the militants burned and ransacked government buildings before delivering Friday prayers at the local mosque. Khaled Batarfi, a high-ranking regional al Qaeda leader, was reportedly freed from the city's jail, along with hundreds of other inmates.

'There are a lot of attacks on activists and journalists, most have fled the city because they fear for their safety, it's a very dark situation.'

As Yemen plunges deeper into chaos, there is growing concern that AQAP and other radical Islamist groups will seek to capitalize even further.

"Yemen's military infrastructure is completely destroyed, and the only groups that are taking advantage, that will benefit from all this is the Islamic State and al Qaeda," Sama'a Al-Hamdani, a Yemen commentator and analyst, told VICE News.

There are already signs that the deeply fractured country is splitting even further. On Monday, Mohammad Musaed, assistant security chief in Aden, rejected the authority of both the rebels and the exiled president.

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"We are against that idiot Hadi, who extended the battle from Sanaa to Aden, but we are also against the Houthis," Musaed told the Yemen Times, giving the rebels a 24-hour ultimatum to leave the port city.

The Houthis practice a Zaydi form of Shia Islam that is largely unique to northern Yemen. Saudi Arabia's Sunni-dominated government, backed by Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Morocco, and Sudan, has accused Iran, a predominantly Shia country, of supporting the rebels.

Al-Hamdani said Iran's role in the conflict is not so cut and dried, and speculated that the foreign intervention could lead to a protracted and bloody war.

"You cannot think of the Houthis as agents of Iran, they are Yemenis using Iran to support their own agenda," she said. "The Saudis are rightfully worried by this happening right on the border, but the problem is their strategy appears to be very short-sighted, and there's no clear plan for what to do next. Yemen was already in bad shape and the balance of power is now further destabilized."

Related: Will Saudi Arabia's new king regret the Arab intervention in Yemen? 

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem