CAIRO (Reuters) - Dozens of air strikes hit the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Thursday, in what residents described as the heaviest aerial attacks yet in nine months of war, days after a Saudi-led coalition trying to restore a Saudi-backed government ended a fragile ceasefire.
The strikes pounded the presidential palace and a mountain military base to the south of the city, causing children and teachers in several schools to flee for their lives.
“My classmate and I were at recess when a huge explosion hit the neighborhood. We ran to the side and she fell to the ground in fear,” said Maha, a tenth grader in a Sanaa school.
“Everybody was screaming and the administration got us together and called our parents to take us out. All the students were in a panic.” There were no immediate reports of casualties.
A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies which supports Yemen’s embattled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has been fighting the Shi‘ite Houthi movement, which controls the capital.
Riyadh sees the Houthis as a proxy for bitter regional rival Iran to expand its influence. They deny this and say they are waging a revolution against a corrupt government and Gulf Arab powers beholden to the West.
Almost 6,000 people have died in the conflict, nearly half of them civilians. United Nations-backed peace talks have yet to produce any substantial progress.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s pro-Hadi foreign ministry declared the representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights persona non grata after what it said were unfair statements, a news agency run by the Hadi government, sabanew.net, reported.
“The work of the (U.N.) commission was a huge disappointment as it issued statements in line with the language of the rebels,” the agency said, citing the human rights minister who also accused the body of overlooking “systematic violations” by the Houthis.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said the move was “very regrettable”.
“We believe our office in Yemen has been doing an excellent job in very difficult conditions,” said U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville, adding that U.N. officials would study the accusations made against the representative.
A new front opened in the civil war when forces loyal to Hadi landed by sea at the Red Sea port of Maydee in northern Yemen near the border with Saudi Arabia late on Wednesday, residents said. Northern Yemen is a Houthi stronghold.
Hadi’s forces attempted to push out from Maydee’s port, pounded for weeks by air strikes and naval shelling, into the surrounding city, but ran into heavy Houthi resistance and landmines, residents told Reuters by telephone.
Major General Adel Qumairi of the pro-government forces told Saudi-owned Arabiya TV that his forces had “completely taken control” of the city.
But Yemen’s state news agency Saba, run by the Houthis, quoted Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for forces allied to the group, as saying the advance had been met by “heroic resistance” that caused them “great material and human losses”.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday announced the end of a truce that had reduced fighting but had been repeatedly violated by both sides.
The Saudi spokesman for the coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, told Al Arabiya that a Houthi ballistic missile aimed at the kingdom overnight had exploded on launch.
Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Gareth Jones