UN investigators have confirmed the deaths of more than 100 civilians, including at least 24 children, in a Saudi-led airstrike on a market in northwest Yemen on Tuesday — the latest and possibly deadliest attack in an increasingly disastrous intervention.
Officials who traveled to the site of the bombings in the village of Al Khamees, near Mustaba in Hajjah province, described a scene of carnage after two ordnances hit throngs of shoppers on Tuesday afternoon, one of the market's busiest times. By Friday, UN investigators had compiled the names of 96 victims, but could not identify 10 bodies that they said were burned "beyond recognition."
The blasts destroyed 16 shops at the market, which the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights described as the primary commercial site for the residents of some 15 nearby villages.
In a statement, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein excoriated the Saudi-led coalition, which has bombed Yemen for nearly a year. The US-backed Gulf force, said Zeid, appeared to consistently fail in distinguishing between military and civilian targets in its campaign against the Houthi rebels.
While the Houthis have also been accused of gross human rights violations, including indiscriminate shelling and blocking aid, Zeid said on Friday that the coalition "is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes." According to the UN, more than 3,200 civilians have been killed in Yemen since the end of last March, when the Saudis intervened.
"They have hit markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories, wedding parties — and hundreds of private residences in villages, towns, and cities," said Zeid. "Despite plenty of international demarches, these awful incidents continue to occur with unacceptable regularity."
On Thursday, the Yemen office of the UN's children's agency, UNICEF, said that as many as 166 people had been either killed or injured in Al Khamees. It was not clear if all of the casualties were civilians, or if there was a military target in the vicinity. However, any attack with such a civilian toll, particularly one on a market, would almost certainly be prohibited under international law, and could be considered a war crime.
"We are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the coalition," said Zeid
Soon after the strike's toll began to come clear, Saudi officials abruptly announced they would scale back military operations in Yemen. On Thursday, coalition spokesperson Brigadier General Ahmed al Assiri was quoted by the Saudi al-Arabiya network as saying "the major fighting in Yemen is nearing and end," and that "the next phase is a stage of restoring stability and reconstructing the country."
'We are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the coalition'
It remains unclear if the Saudis will follow through and cease the bulk of their military operations inside Yemen. If they do, Riyadh will have little to show for a year-long assault that has killed thousands, destroyed civilian infrastructure, and largely failed to achieve its stated goals.
While coalition forces and a motley array of armed groups were able to push the Houthis from the southern city of Aden, the rebels and their allies loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh remain in control of the majority of populated areas in Yemen. And even Aden, where the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is meant to be temporarily based, lawlessness is the norm and attacks by extremists groups, including the Islamic State, occur with regularity.
Earlier this month, Houthi representatives held talks with Saudi officials in a border region inside Saudi Arabia. While bombings continue elsewhere, fighting in the border areas has calmed. In recent months, Houthi forces made repeated incursions into Saudi territory, and lobbed missiles across the vast frontier, which Riyadh has difficulty defending.
US officials have said there is no military solution to Yemen's conflict, but Washington's support program for the Saudi coalition continues unabated. As part of a pact with Riyadh, the American military maintains a joint cell in Saudi Arabia from which it provides intelligence to the Kingdom. It also flies daily refueling sorties over Saudi airspace for coalition jets. In the past year, US tankers have offloaded nearly 28 million pounds of fuel to coalition planes. Since 2010, the US has approved the sale of over $100 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia.
Tuesday's attack was the second in less than a month to strike crowds of shoppers. On February 27, at least 39 civilians, including children, were killed when planes attacked a market in Khaleq, in the northeast of Sanaa. According to UNICEF, more than 2,000 children have been killed or injured in attacks over the past year.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford