SANAA, Yemen – An airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition on Wednesday hit a two-story motel north of the capital, killing at least 46 people, the latest in an escalating barrage of air assaults in war-torn Yemen this year, witnesses and officials said.
“I saw a few bodies hanging out from the windows,” said Mohammed Aluraiji, 34, a seller of khat, the narcotic leaf chewed by many Yemenis. “Bodies were completely burned. . . . I was completely shocked.”
The assault comes as the alliance between the rebel Houthi movement and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who together control the capital and much of northern Yemen, shows signs of splintering. In recent months, sharp differences have emerged over U.N. initiatives, the control of ministries, and military and political decisions.
Saleh’s supporters are planning a major rally in the capital on Thursday to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the General People’s Congress, the former president’s political party that controlled the nation for more than three decades. Residents fear possible violence as armed factions from both sides are positioned in the capital.
Wednesday’s airstrikes, which occurred around 3:30 a.m., may have been intended to exploit the divisions. There were other airstrikes targeting areas around the capital, Yemeni officials said.
Some local media reports suggested that Houthi rebels were killed in the attack on the motel, which was near a Houthi checkpoint on the main road about 19 miles north of the capital. Health ministry officials and witnesses said most of the victims were khat farmers who were staying at the motel.
“We are still extracting bodies from under the rubble,” said Zaid Alshami, a senior health ministry official. “The numbers of dead could go up.”
A Saudi-led coalition spokesman told Reuters that information about the attack was being collected, but did not elaborate further.
Yemen’s conflict pits the Houthi-Saleh alliance against the recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was ousted from power two and half years ago. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are seeing to restore Hadi to power, not least because they are wary of the Shiite Houthis and their suspected backing by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival.
More than 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed, mostly by airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition that have targeted hospitals, schools and other civilian targets. More than three million people have fled their homes, and the country is grappling with a hunger crisis and an outbreak of cholera.
Human rights activists have called on the United States and Britain to stop selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.
A report last week by a group of international aid agencies led by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees found that more airstrikes have struck Yemen this year than in all of 2016. There have been 5,676 airstrikes this year compared to 3,936 in all of last year, according to the report by the Protection Cluster in Yemen.
The number of clashes on the ground have also intensified, increasing by 56 percent from last year, the report said.
Raghavan contributed from Cairo.