Reuters reports at least 40 people were killed and 200 more wounded in an errant attack against a camp for “displaced people” in northern Yemen on Monday. Houthi insurgents claim this was collateral damage from an air attack on their positions by the Saudi-led international coalition seeking to restore the government of deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
The Saudi military said they were investigating the incident. “It could have been that the fighter jets replied to fire, and we cannot confirm that it was a refugee camp,” said a Saudi general. Hadi’s government, meanwhile, blamed Houthi artillery fire for casualties at the camp.
At least one witness at the camp said that the target of the strike appeared to be a truck full of Houthi militia parked at the gates. A Yemeni journalist quoted by the L.A. Times said he thought Saudi forces mistook the refugee camp for a Houthi military installation. Other sources believe the target of the airstrike was a Houthi base located uncomfortably close to the refugee camp.
The camp should have been a fairly well-known location to all parties involved in the conflict. “Mazraq, in the province of Hajja next to the Saudi border, is a cluster of camps that are home to thousands of Yemenis displaced by over a decade of wars between the Houthis and the Yemeni state, as well as East African migrants,” writes Reuters. The L.A. Times report says U.N. officials are now working to relocate refugees further away from the fighting.
The Saudi coalition has deployed impressive firepower against the Houthis, including a large number of nighttime air attacks around the capital city of Sanaa, plus a naval bombardment believed to have been conducted by Egyptian warships. Despite this, Houthi forces are said to be closing in on controlling the port city of Aden, the last redoubt of Hadi loyalists. Houthi forces also overran two districts in the Shabwa province on Sunday.
The coalition bombing campaign seems intended to soften the Houthis up for a ground invasion, which is imminent, according to CNN: “Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both spoken about the possibility of putting boots on the ground before. And on Saturday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said he expected coalition troops to be in Yemen within days.”
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal said on Sunday that it would take months to assemble coalition ground forces for an invasion, and cited the opinion of Arab diplomats that ground action was “unlikely,” because the relatively inexperienced Saudi army would have trouble against seasoned Houthi guerrillas in Yemen’s difficult mountain terrain.
The air campaign has been targeting aircraft, bases, and heavy weapons that might help the Houthis put up stiff resistance to such an invasion force. A ground operation would also have to contend with forces that remain loyal to the previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been working with the Houthi insurgency, and has actually been able to convince commanders of some elite government units to stay out of the fight. Oddly enough, his son was still an active part of the Hadi government-in-exile until this weekend, when he was finally removed from his position as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
Saleh is Shiite Muslim, so he falls on Iran’s side of the sectarian conflict brewing between Iran and the Saudi coalition of Sunni states, which currently includes the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan. Pakistan also announced it would contribute troops to the effort over the weekend.
Hadi’s latest remarks to his Houthi opponents were not exactly conciliatory: “I say to the puppet of Iran, and those who are with him, you destroyed Yemen with your immature politics, and creating internal and regional crisis.”
For his part, Saleh reportedly offered to keep his entire family out of the next presidential elections if the airstrikes are halted, although that does not sound like enough of an offer to attract the coalition’s interest. The Houthis also rejected the offer, saying they would “agree to negotiations only if Saudi Arabia played no role in the talks,” according to the Wall Street Journal.