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More than 60 killed, including children, in airstrikes in Yemen

The destruction at a prison in the Houthi rebel stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen after it was hit in an airstrike on Jan. 21. (Ansarullah Media Center/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — More than 60 people were killed and over 100 injured in airstrikes in Yemen, aid organizations and an official for the Houthi rebels said Friday, as the death toll mounted in a particularly violent week for the war-torn country.

At least three children were among the dozens of people killed, the humanitarian organization Save the Children said in a statement. They died while playing soccer near communications infrastructure in the port city of Hodeida that was badly damaged overnight, said Amjad Yamin, the media, communications and advocacy director for Save the Children in Yemen.

More than 60 adults were then killed early Friday when an airstrike hit a detention center in the northern city of Saada, a Houthi stronghold. Aid workers said migrants were among those being held in the detention center.

“To wake up to this level of civilian death toll is honestly horrifying,” Yamin said.

Overnight, the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 and controls that country’s airspace claimed responsibility for the Friday airstrikes but denied that it struck a prison.

It said in a statement that Houthi claims that the coalition had targeted a detention center and killed detainees in the strikes were “baseless and unfounded.”

“The target in question has not been placed on the No Strike List (NSL) in accordance with the agreed upon mechanism,” the statement read. The target does not adhere to international humanitarian laws, the statement continued, which require detention centers to carry “distinctive symbols and preventative measures” to ensure they would not be targeted.

In recent days, the coalition has ramped up its airstrikes after a Houthi-claimed attack Monday on Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, that left two Indian citizens and one Pakistani dead. The UAE is a partner in the coalition, which intervened on behalf of the Yemeni government after the Houthis took over Sanaa, the capital, at the beginning of the war. On Monday night, hours after the attack in Abu Dhabi, more than a dozen people were killed in at least two coalition airstrikes on a home in Sanaa.

The war in Yemen has dragged on for seven years, causing a severe humanitarian crisis and widespread hunger. In recent weeks, the coalition has ramped up its airstrikes, targeting Houthi infrastructure but also killing civilians. In December, airstrikes damaged the airport in Sanaa, which has long been closed except for humanitarian flights because of coalition restrictions on airspace.

The Houthis said their attack on Abu Dhabi was intended as retaliation for an offensive by UAE-backed forces that recently claimed to have regained key territory from the rebels.

The United States once strongly backed the Saudi-led coalition. But President Biden announced early last year that Washington would withdraw support for the coalition’s offensive operations, which have been blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians. The Trump administration had previously halted U.S. refueling of Saudi jets operating against the Houthis. Some members of Congress had long expressed outrage over U.S. involvement in the war, including weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration previously reversed an 11th-hour Trump administration decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists, amid widespread concerns from humanitarians that it would impede lifesaving aid work in the country. But this week, after a request from the UAE, Biden said relisting the Houthis as terrorists is “under consideration.”

A Biden-appointed envoy is participating in negotiations intended to end the conflict. But those talks have been hampered in part by ground fighting that for the last year has been concentrated primarily in Marib province, the government’s last major holding in the north. Both sides are eager to control the province’s key oil and gas resources.

The Internet was down across most of Yemen on Friday, adding to civilians’ distress as they tried to contact friends and relatives after the devastating airstrikes. The Houthis blamed the strike in Hodeida for the Internet outage.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said in a statement that al-Gumhourriyeh Hospital in Saada had received 138 wounded patients and had recorded 70 deaths after the attack on the detention center. “They are so overwhelmed that they can’t take any more patients,” the statement said of medical staff.

“It is impossible to know how many people have been killed,” Ahmed Mahat, head of the organization’s Yemen office, said in a statement. “It seems to have been a horrific act of violence.”

Mutahar Almarwani, director general of the health office in Sanaa, said that the detention center was targeted early Friday and that more than 60 people were killed. He also said that death toll was expected to rise.

The Saudi-led coalition did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the airstrikes, and it did not release a statement on Hodeida or Saada. But on Friday the coalition did issue a statement on military operations in Marib, saying it had conducted 28 targeted operations against the Houthis over the past 24 hours, destroying 13 military vehicles and killing more than 90 group members.

Over the past year, both sides have suffered serious casualties on the front lines in Marib, where the Houthis have deployed drones against government troops in their efforts to take control of the province.

Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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