By Ali al-Mujahed and Hugh Naylor
SANAA, Yemen — An apparent airstrike killed scores of people at a United Nations refugee camp in northern Yemen on Monday amid escalating air raids by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that are targeting Shiite insurgents across the war-ravaged country.
As many as 20 civilians died and more than 15 were wounded in an attack on the Mazraq camp in Hajjah province, Mogib Hassan, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement. He did not assign blame for the incident or specify how the attack was carried out, but he said the casualty figures are expected to rise.
The insurgents, known as Houthis, are not believed to be launching airstrikes in the province, which they firmly control. Their positions in the area have been targeted repeatedly with air assaults conducted by the Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab countries.
According to the Reuters news agency, unidentified humanitarian workers said an airstrike hit a truck carrying Houthi militiamen near the camp’s entrance. The Yemeni Defense Ministry, which is under rebel control, put the death toll at 40, Reuters reported.
The bombing, which happened just before noon, was one of the deadliest incidents since the coalition strikes began Thursday. Officials in Riyadh were not immediately available for comment.
The Mazraq camp is one of several U.N.-run facilities in the north that house thousands of people who were displaced in previous wars between the government in Sanaa, the capital, and the Houthis, who come from a nearby province in the north. Over the last year, the Houthis have become Yemen’s dominant power, toppling the U.S.-backed government and seizing control over most of country’s north.
The Saudi-led military campaign has not stopped the rebels from mounting assaults in the south, even as its airstrikes have destroyed rebel-controlled bases and weapons.
Attacks by the Houthis and military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh intensified in the southern city of Aden on Saturday, residents said. They reported that tanks began shelling the northern edges of the strategic port city.
“The fighting was intense this morning,” said Abdulnaser al-Aarabi, 46, an activist from Aden. At least one coalition airstrike hit a weapons-storage facility in the Green City area of Aden, and warships off the coast struck Houthi militias as they attempted to enter the city from the eastern province of Abyan, he said.
“Those attacks appeared to have slowed the progress of the Houthis,” he said by telephone.
Saleh, who was deposed by a 2011 uprising, has used the military units that are still loyal to him to support the Houthis against Yemen’s Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and his allies.
Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia last week. He escaped Houthi-imposed house arrest in Sanaa and made his way earlier this month to Aden, where he attempted to establish a rival government.
The Saudi-led airstrikes shook Sanaa for a fifth day Monday as the Houthi rebels pressed south toward Aden. The bombing campaign against the Houthis and their allies continued to target fighters, jets, air defense systems and missile launch pads, as well as the presidential palace in the capital, reports said.
Frightened residents of the Yemeni capital sought shelter indoors.
“It was a night from hell,” a Yemeni diplomat told the Reuters news agency.
The Shiite Houthi rebels, who already control the capital, are backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional adversary.
The relentless bombing, whose main aim is to put down the rebel takeover in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor to the south, continued after Arab leaders announced Sunday that they would form a joint military force to intervene in neighboring states grappling with armed insurgencies.
The announcement at a summit of Arab leaders in Egypt was a dramatic step to quell the unrest that has broken out in the wake of the region’s uprisings, but some analysts warned it could exacerbate the conflicts that have polarized countries and left hundreds of thousands dead.
Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition carried out scores of airstrikes across Yemen over the weekend. That coordinated operation, involving mostly Arab countries, could represent a prototype for future joint Arab military interventions in the region.
Arab officials said they still need to hammer out the details of the proposed joint force, but broader questions remain over the ability of Arab countries — many of which have killed scores of their own citizens — to stem the region’s wars through military action. Arab armies, while well-equipped, are largely untested and lack the training to fight guerrilla-style conflicts with rebel forces such as the Houthis.
From Yemen to Libya to the battlefields of Syria, armed groups have exploited fresh violence to seize power or rout rivals. The result has been deepening polarization and rising death tolls across the region.
“Without a component for political dialogue, this force will be ineffective and even detrimental” to the region, said Abdel Salam Nasia, an independent member of Libya’s parliament who attended the summit in Egypt.
Last month, Egyptian fighter jets carried out airstrikes against militant targets in eastern Libya after jihadists beheaded 20 Egyptian Christians there. Egypt then called for a broader intervention to battle Libya’s militant Islamist groups but was rebuffed by U.S. and U.N. officials seeking a negotiated end to Libya’s violence.
Speaking at the summit Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen scoffed at the idea of government talks with the Houthis and said the Saudi-led offensive has been “extremely successful.”
“The operation will end when Yemen is safe and secure. But we will only negotiate with those who are willing to disarm,” he said. “We won’t negotiate with [the Houthis] because they carried out a coup. They used the state’s weakness to take over.”
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen after the Houthis toppled the government and captured vast tracts of territory in recent weeks.
The Arab League chief, Nabil al-Araby, said Sunday that the joint force would be deployed at the request of any Arab nation facing a security threat, including from terrorist groups. A panel of regional security officials will meet in the coming months to draw up the size, structure and budget of the effort, he said. Member states have proposed a 40,000-strong force backed by fighter jets, warships and light armor, the Associated Press reported, citing Egyptian security officials.
Arab officials said the region’s unprecedented threats have made a joint security force necessary. Indeed, a wave of uprisings beginning in 2010 deposed at least four Arab leaders after decades of authoritarian rule. But the pro-democracy revolts were soon overtaken by political chaos and the proliferation of armed factions seeking to capitalize on the instability.
“The challenges facing Arab national security are immense,” Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said at the closing session of the Arab League summit. Sissi said the decision to establish a combined military force “defends our [Arab] nation . . . and gives it an active role in the future of human civilization.”
In Yemen, in the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada, there were unconfirmed reports that airstrikes had destroyed power plants, depriving the province of electricity over the weekend. Warplanes also struck Sanaa’s airport and the port at Hodeida, crippling Yemen’s already weak infrastructure.
Yet even as Saudi officials said they had not ruled out invading Yemen with ground troops, analysts warned of the perils of sending inexperienced armed forces into a country with rugged mountain peaks and severe water shortages. Such a ground force would also struggle against battle-hardened Houthis who are now the most competent fighters in Yemen. The country’s military has fallen apart because of splits over loyalties and the Saudi attacks.
Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said Saudi forces lack experience in mounting large ground offensives.
“There are all sorts of potential pitfalls” that would accompany a ground incursion in Yemen, he said. “The whole point is that the Houthis have demonstrated that other fighting forces are disorganized, leaderless, and thus these forces collapsed in the face of Houthi assaults.”
Egypt, too, commands a sizable army, but it has struggled to battle a years-long insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Its forces have also been attacked on the border with Libya, causing some of the highest casualties among Egyptian troops since the war with Israel in 1973.
“We are wary of military intervention, and we hope the Arab League can provide checks” on the forces leading the push for joint Arab assaults, said Dhia al-Dabbass, Iraq’s permanent delegate to the Arab League.
“The politics of the region are too complex,” he said. “There is no reason why negotiation should not take precedent.”
Habib reported from Sharm el-Sheikh. Cunningham reported from Cairo. Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.