Thirty-one people were killed in airstrikes on Yemen on Saturday, the United Nations said, the victims of an apparent Saudi-led retaliation after Iran-backed Huthi rebels claimed to have shot down one of its jets.
The Tornado aircraft came down on Friday in northern Al-Jawf province during an operation to support government forces, a rare shooting down that prompted operations in the area by a Saudi-led military coalition fighting the rebels.
The deadly violence follows an upsurge in fighting in northern Yemen between the warring parties that threatens to worsen the war-battered country’s humanitarian crisis.
“Preliminary field reports indicate that on 15 February as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in strikes that hit Al-Hayjah area… in Al-Jawf governorate,” the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said in a statement.
Lise Grande, the UN coordinator, denounced the “terrible strikes”. “Under international humanitarian law, parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians,” she said.
“Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility. It’s shocking.”
The rebels reported multiple coalition airstrikes in the area where the plane went down, adding that women and children were among the dead and wounded, according to rebel television station Al-Masirah.
The coalition conceded the “possibility of collateral damage” during a “search and rescue operation” at the site of the jet crash, which left the fate of its crew uncertain.
‘A major blow’
Without stating the cause of the crash, a coalition statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency said the crew, comprising two officers, ejected from the plane before it crashed but the rebels opened fire at them in “violation of the international humanitarian law”.
“The lives and wellbeing of the crew is the responsibility of the terrorist Huthi militia,” the statement said, without specifying whether they had survived.
The Huthi rebels released footage of what they called the launch of their “advanced surface-to-air missile” and the moment it struck the jet in the night sky, sending it crashing down in a ball of flames.
“The downing of a Tornado in the sky above Al-Jawf is a major blow to the enemy and an indication of remarkable growth in Yemeni [rebel] air-defence capabilities,” Huthi spokesman Mohammed Abdelsalam tweeted.
The escalation follows fierce fighting around the Huthi-held capital Sanaa, with the rebels seen to be advancing on several fronts towards Al-Hazm, the regional capital of Al-Jawf.
The province of Al-Jawf has been mostly controlled by the Huthis, but its capital remains in the hands of the Saudi-backed government.
‘Massively expanded arsenal’
The downing of a coalition warplane marks a setback for a military alliance known for its air supremacy and signals the rebels’ increasingly potent military arsenal.
“At the start of the conflict the Huthis were a ragtag militia,” Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said. “Today they have massively expanded their arsenal with the help of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah,” Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement.
Huthi rebels now possess weapons bearing signs of Iranian origin, according to a UN report obtained by AFP earlier this month, in potential violation of a UN arms embargo.
Some of the new weapons, which the rebels obtained last year, “have technical characteristics similar to arms manufactured in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said the report, compiled by a panel of UN experts tasked with monitoring the embargo.
The panel did not say whether the weapons were delivered to the Huthis directly by the Iranian government, which has repeatedly denied sending them arms.
The coalition intervened against the Huthis in 2015, in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, and sparked what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The coalition force has been widely criticized for the high civilian death toll from its bombing campaign, which has prompted some Western governments to cut arms deliveries to the countries taking part.
On Wednesday, the coalition said it would put on trial military personnel suspected of being behind deadly airstrikes on Yemeni civilians.
Humanitarian lifeline ‘at risk’
Meanwhile, obstruction by the rebel Huthi authorities in northern Yemen has allegedly put the world’s biggest humanitarian lifeline at risk, threatening millions with starvation.
Senior officials, UN leaders and humanitarian groups met at the European Commission in Brussels on Thursday, where they heard that vital aid supplies could be cut off.
“It cannot continue, the biggest lifeline on earth is at stake. There are 20 million people in need in Yemen,” Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said.
Earlier, Egeland addressed the meeting, called by the European Commission and the government of Sweden, to address the latest crisis in the five-year-old civil war.
Before the talks, the European commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic, declared: “Yemen is the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. The parties to the conflict must uphold international humanitarian law and guarantee safe and unimpeded access to humanitarian organizations.”
Yemen has been driven to the brink of famine during fighting between the Iran-backed Huthi group based in Sanaa, and the Saudi-backed government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Attempts to tax aid shipments
The Brussels meeting heard that, while both sides have made trouble for humanitarian and UN agencies, the Huthi attempts to tax shipments triggered the latest crisis.
“It’s always been very difficult to work in Yemen,” Egeland, a former senior Norwegian diplomat and UN undersecretary-general, said in an interview.
For a long time, he said, the Saudi-led blockade of the port of Hodeida and bombing campaign had been the problem.
“But today it is the authorities in the north who are sitting in Sanaa, Ansar Allah, that have the majority of the restrictions,” he said, using the Huthi movement’s official name
“It’s also difficult to work in the south with the Hadi government, but the main interference, the main problems we have are in the north,” he said.
Egeland said that in addition to various other forms of harassment and interference, the northern authorities had threatened to impose a 2% levy on NGOs.
“We cannot pay donated aid money to one of the parties to the conflict. So that is one of the many red lines that we are fearful of having to cross. We cannot do it,” he said.
Only a negotiated settlement between the two sides can end the conflict, he said, but in the meantime donor groups and UN members must pressure them to allow aid through.
Of the 20 million people civilians under threat in Yemen, aid reaches 14 million, in what Egeland describes as a “major achievement” for the UN and aid groups.
But the World Food Program and some other international donors may be forced to halt supplies if local officials insist on taking a cut.
“The UN agencies, including the WFP, have already on several points frozen assistance, had a pause in the assistance, which is of course devastating,” Egeland said. “That led to some improvements in the situation. We’re now back to as bad as it has been, really.
“The aid may come to a halt, and it shouldn’t be like that, we should be allowed to help the innocent, to cite the Koran,” he said.
“We should be able to keep people alive until the politicians, the people with guns and with power, make it up on the negotiating table.”
‘Blackmail of reducing aid’
The Huthi authorities have previously dismissed the criticism, including allegations of systematic interference and layers of bureaucracy imposed by SCMCHA, the rebel’s aid body.
“Some UN agencies play a political role and use aid as a card with which to threaten the Yemenis,” said the head of SCMCHA, Abdul Mohsen al-Tawoos.
“This blackmail of reducing aid doesn’t work on Yemenis, and if they continue with this threat, then things will turn against them,” he said, according to Huthi media.
But Egeland insisted that the humanitarian operation was strictly neutral, and the only thing standing between millions of innocents and starvation.
“Of the 20 million people in need there’s various degrees of severity. All are in great need, it’s bigger need than anything you see here in Europe,” he said.
“But there are millions one step away from starvation, which means that if that lifeline to 14 million people is partly or wholly cut it will have devastating consequences.”
This report was updated on February 16.