By The Washington Post · Sudarsan Raghavan · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST
The airstrikes targeting Yemen's northern Al-Jawf Province came a day after the country's rebel Houthi movement claimed they had shot down a coalition warplane in the same area. Saturday's attacks were widely seen as a retaliation for the downing of the fighter jet.
In a statement, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official said that preliminary reports indicate that as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in the strikes that targeted the Al Hayjah area of the province.
"So many people are being killed in Yemen - it's a tragedy and it's unjustifiable," said Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. "Under international humanitarian law, parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians. Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility. It's shocking."
The violence was the latest sign of the war's intensification after months of relative quiet amid efforts between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to pave a way to end the conflict. Since mid-January, fierce clashes have broken out in several areas in three provinces, forcing at least 4,700 families to flee their homes, according to the U.N.
The American-backed coalition, a grouping of Sunni Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, entered Yemen's civil war in March 2015 after the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, forcing out the country's international recognized government.
While the coalition says it seeks to restore the government, the war is also widely viewed as a proxy war between the Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, that is aligned with the Houthis, who also follow the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam.
The war has deepened what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, where nearly 80 percent of Yemen's 24 million people are in need of assistance and protection. At least 10 million Yemenis are on the edge of famine, with another 7 million suffer from malnourishment, according to U.N. statistics. More than 3.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes.
Saturday's death toll included women and children, according to the Houthi-run Al Masirah television network. While the Houthis claimed to have shot down the coalition's war plane, a coalition spokesman disputed that assertion.
In a statement carried on Saudi Arabia's state news agency, Col. Turki Al-Malki said that the jet had crashed. He described the war plane as a Tornado, which is made in Britain, Italy and Germany. Malki said the plane's two-member crew ejected before it crashed, but that the rebels fired at them.
Malki did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday's airstrikes and civilian casualties.