A Saudi-led coalition airstrike at a fruit-and-vegetable market near Yemen’s flashpoint Red Sea port of Hodeida killed 21 civilians, including children, the U.N. humanitarian aid agency said Thursday.
Wednesday’s strike comes amid mounting fears of a fresh coalition assault on Hodeida — a city that has been the lifeline for international aid deliveries to Yemen, ravaged by a brutal three-and-a-half year war between the Saudi-led alliance and Shite rebels known as Houthis.
The coalition has been trying to wrest Hodeida from the Iran-backed rebels but the campaign, like the rest of Yemen’s war, had fallen into a stalemate.
The airstrike, which hit the outdoor market in the town of Bayt el-Faqih, just south of Hodeida, also wounded six people. Initial reports had five dead but the death toll steadily climbed overnight.
The director of the Bayt el-Faqih hospital, Abdullah Shahawi, said all the victims were civilians and that at least two children were among the dead.
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In the capital, Saana, the rebel-run Al Masirah TV reported a higher casualty figure, saying at least 20 people died and 10 were wounded. The different casualty tolls could not immediately be resolved.
Video footage obtained by The Associated Press showed the aftermath of the strike, with body parts lying scattered across the market and coffins lined up in the hospital. The video could not be independently confirmed but it corresponded to events reported by the AP. A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition did not respond to multiple phone calls and messages seeking comment.
Journalists have been barred from visiting rebel-held areas in Hodeida, including where Wednesday’s airstrike took place. Yemeni security officials confirmed the strike but didn’t know what the intended target had been.
It’s not uncommon for coalition jets to hit civilians and wedding parties, funerals, residential homes and hospitals have been struck in the past. In August, an airstrike hit a bus carrying children on their way to school in northern Yemen, killing more than 40.
The growing number of the war’s civilian casualties has prompted right groups to call for the suspension of the multibillion-dollar U.S. and European arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for decades among the world’s largest buyers of weapons.
Save the Children said Thursday the cost of basic food items such as flour, rice, salt, sugar and cooking oil has nearly doubled since the conflict erupted in March 2015. The average income in Yemen has more than halved, meanwhile, falling to just $3.39 a day. The organization also said that 52 percent of the population lives under the international poverty line — up from 30 percent in 2014.
“The economic collapse is Yemen’s silent killer; many Yemenis are struggling just to survive,” said Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s director for Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and its powerful young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been leading the coalition campaign in Yemen, have been facing an international outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. Kashoggi’s slaying has also sparked widespread condemnation of the crown prince and marred his international standing after Turkish reports alleged that a member of his entourage was involved in the killing.
The Saudi-led coalition recently sent reinforcements to Yemen’s west coast for what many fear would be an intensified battle for Hodeida.
The city’s port literally keeps millions of starving Yemenis alive, as it serves as entry point for 70 percent of food imports and international aid. A protracted siege of Hodeida by the coalition could cut off that lifeline.
Yemeni officials said Wednesday that reinforcements had arrived in tanks and armored vehicles provided by the United Arab Emirates, a key coalition member. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The assault to retake rebel-held Hodeida first began in June, then paused in August as the U.N. envoy for Yemen tried to cobble together peace talks, the first in two years. That attempt fell apart, and the offensive resumed in mid-September. Hodeida fighting has already killed hundreds of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
An estimated 10,000 people have been killed so far and the conflict has devastated Yemen and pushed it to the brink of famine. The war has also left around two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million relying on aid, and over 8 million at risk of starvation.