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Yemen rebels and aid group put death toll from Saudi-led airstrike on prison at over 80

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By AP with Euronews
This image from a video released by the Ansarullah Media centre on Jan. 21, 2022 shows the aftermath of a Saudi-led coalition strike on a telecommunications hub in Hodeida.
This image from a video released by the Ansarullah Media centre on Jan. 21, 2022 shows the aftermath of a Saudi-led coalition strike on a telecommunications hub in Hodeida.   -   Copyright  ANSARULLAH MEDIA CENTER / AFP

The death toll from a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a prison run by Yemen’s Houthi rebels climbed to at least 82 detainees, the rebels and an aid group said Saturday. Internet access in the Arab world’s poorest country remained largely down.

The airstrike in northern Saada province on Friday was part of an intense air and ground offensive that marked an escalation in Yemen’s years-long civil war. The conflict pits the internationally recognized government, aided by the Saudi-led coalition, against the Iranian-backed rebels.

Ahmed Mahat, head of Doctors Without Borders, a charity mission in Yemen, told The Associated Press they counted at least 82 dead and more than 265 wounded in the airstrike.

The Houthis’ media office said that rescuers were still searching for survivors and bodies in the rubble of the prison site on the border with Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis used the prison complex to hold detained migrants, mostly Africans attempting to cross through the war-torn country into Saudi Arabia, according to the humanitarian organization Save the Children.

But Mahat, of Doctors Without Borders, said the airstrike hit a different part of the facility housing other types of detainees. “The migrants there are safe,” he said.

The air attack, one of the deadliest of the war, renewed criticism of the coalition from the United Nations and international aid and rights groups.

Saudi coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki alleged the Houthis hadn’t reported the site as needing protection from airstrikes to the U.N. or the International Committee of the Red Cross. He claimed the Houthis’ failure to do so represented the militia's “usual deceptive approach” in the conflict.

The Saada attack followed another Saudi-led coalition airstrike Friday at the Red Sea port city of Hodeida hit a telecommunications center key to Yemen’s connection to the internet. Access to the internet has remained “largely down for more than 24 hours” in the country, advocacy group NetBlocks.org said Saturday.

Rights groups have previously documented that the Houthis use civilian detainees as human shields by placing them in detention centers next to military barracks under constant threat of airstrikes.

Friday’s airstrikes in Saada and Hodeida have renewed criticism of the coalition from the United Nations and international aid and rights groups. 

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties, killing thousands of civilians. The Houthis meanwhile have used child soldiers and indiscriminately laid land mines across the country. They also launched cross-border attacks using ballistic missiles and explosives-laden drones on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The escalation was the most intense since 2018 fighting for the Red Sea port of Hodeida and comes after a year of U.S. and U.N. efforts failed to bring the two sides to the negotiating table.

The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country began in 2014, when the Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led coalition, backed at the time by the U.S., entered the war months later to try to restore the government to power.

The conflict has since become a regional proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters. The war also created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.