Top U.N. officials in Yemen demanded accountability on Monday after the deadliest Saudi-led attack this year in a four-year war likely killed more than 100 people and injured dozens of others in a Houthi rebel-run prison.
A day earlier, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes hit a former community college compound on the northern outskirts of Dhamar City, where about 170 prisoners were being held in a detention facility within the compound.
The Yemen U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed 52 detainees were among the dead and at least 68 detainees were still missing, with casualties likely to increase as rescue efforts continued.
"The human cost of this war is unbearable. We need it to stop. Yemenis deserve a peaceful future," said Martin Griffiths, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy for Yemen. "I hope the coalition will launch an inquiry into this incident. Accountability needs to prevail.”
First responders were struggling to reach the scene due to repeated strikes on the site where some survivors were believed to still be trapped under the rubble, according to a joint statement from Griffiths and Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.
“This is a horrific incident. The scale of the casualties is staggering," said Grande.
“Humanitarian partners are rushing surgical and medical supplies including trauma kits to Dhamar General Hospital and Maaber Hospital," she said. "We are diverting critical medical supplies from the cholera response. We have no choice.”
Yemeni Red Crescent volunteers and medics removed dozens of bodies from the rubble of a building that served as a detention facility. The airstrikes killed or injured every detainee that was still inside when the multi-story facility crumbled, the International Committee for the Red Cross reported.
Forty of the 170 detainees were being treated for injuries and the rest were presumed killed though no toll has been confirmed, ICRC said.
'Dark times for Yemen'
The Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, has been trying to prop up the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was driven from the capital Sanaa by the militia in 2015.
Yemen has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. Almost 80% of the nation's 24.1 million population needs some kind of humanitarian aid and protection, according to U.N. officials.
As many as 10 million people are a step away from famine and starvation, and 7 million people are malnourished.
Saudi Arabia has been struggling to hold together the military coalition fighting Iran-aligned Houthis. The UAE, part of the coalition, has supported some of the separatists battling the Saudi-backed government for control of the south.
Meantime, the United Nations has been trying to reopen peace talks to end the more than four-year conflict that observers call a proxy war between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“These are very dark times for Yemen,” Grande said. "There have been days of fighting and strikes in the south and hundreds of casualties. It's obvious, and we say it again and again. The only way to end the killing and misery in Yemen is to end the conflict.
Investigators for the United Nations said a year ago they identified possible war crimes carried out by all sides in Yemen: a coalition of its government, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the opposition militia.
A U.N. panel of three human rights experts said in an initial report to the U.N. Human Rights Council that the possible war crimes include rape, torture, disappearances and “deprivation of the right to life” during more than three years of fighting against rebels in Yemen.
The rebel Shiite militia in Yemen, which opposes Yemen’s government and a Saudi-led coalition, also may have committed violations and war crimes under international law, according to the 41-page report, which identified people suspected of carrying out the crimes, violations and abuses.