Pause in Yemen bombing urged for evacuations, aid

SANAA, Yemen — As a Saudi Arabia-led air coalition continued to strike rebel targets across Yemen, Russia and the International Committee of the Red Cross on Saturday called for a pause in the bombardment to enable the evacuation of foreigners and the delivery of aid to people cut off for more than a week.

Underscoring the appeals, new reports emerged of civilian casualties and of al-Qaida-linked militants executing dozens of soldiers while consolidating their grip on a southeastern provincial capital.

Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia is leading efforts to crush the Iran-allied Shiite Muslim insurgents known as Houthis who toppled the country’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Airstrikes and intense ground fighting has raged for days in and near the southern port of Aden, Yemen’s second city and its main commercial hub.

Hadi had taken shelter in Aden after the capital, Sanaa, fell to the Houthis last year, and the insurgents’ offensive against the port city triggered the Saudi-led intervention.

At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, Russia circulated a draft resolution calling for regular breaks in the airstrikes for the evacuation of foreign diplomats and civilians. The draft also demands unhindered access by humanitarian organizations to populations in need, the Associated Press reported.

Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dina Kawar, the council president, told reporters that members would need time to consider the Russian proposal and another draft resolution submitted earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council that would impose an arms embargo on the Houthis. The GCC includes Saudi Arabia and its allies, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

International agencies have expressed growing alarm over rising civilian casualties in Yemen. The U.N. said Thursday that the fighting had resulted in more than 500 deaths in two weeks, many of the victims civilians and nearly 100 of them children.

On the outskirts of Sanaa, nine people in a single family were reported to have been killed when their home was hit, apparently by an errant strike. Officials said Saturday that the strike a day earlier in Bani Matar also wounded five family members, and that the dead and injured included five children younger than 5.

The Red Cross warned Saturday that many more people could die if families in the worst affected areas aren’t allowed to venture out of their homes for food, water and medical care, and if relief supplies and surgical personnel aren’t allowed into the country.

In a statement issued in Geneva, the organization appealed for an immediate “humanitarian pause” to last at least 24 hours.

Saudi officials are concerned that the insurgents would use any halt in military operations to seize Aden, where Hadi loyalists are fighting the Houthis.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the allies are taking steps to mitigate the risks to civilians and have included the provision of aid in their planning. But, he said, the coalition does not want military operations to be compromised, the lives of humanitarian workers to be put at risk or aid to get into the wrong hands.

Asiri said coalition forces were working with the international community to evacuate foreign nationals. Among those who have been flown out of the country are citizens of Russia, India, Algeria, Indonesia and Pakistan, Asiri told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and more flights are in the works.

The fighting appeared to be fiercest in Aden, where airstrikes have been concentrated and warships from Egypt and other countries have shelled Houthi positions. Warplanes have air-dropped supplies to the city’s defenders, Asiri said.

The most recent round of airstrikes hit positions held by troops loyal to deposed strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has allied himself with the insurgents. Aid groups have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in the city, where corpses of those killed in urban fighting – some Houthis, some members of the so-called popular committees fighting them – have been left in the streets.

Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate has capitalized on the turmoil to seize new territory. Its fighters in the last week have surged into the southeastern port city of Mukalla, the country’s fifth-largest, staged a massive jailbreak and looted the local branch of the Central Bank.

Officials reported Saturday that al-Qaida-linked militants had executed dozens of captured soldiers in Mukalla, seizing weapons and oil shipments and overrunning military bases. Tribal fighters loyal to Hadi are attempting to drive the militants out of the city, Asiri said.

Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramout province, was seized by al-Qaida fighters after the Saudi-led coalition began its airstrikes on Houthi positions. Previously, Sunni Muslim al-Qaida fighters had staged many attacks in Sana and elsewhere against the Houthis, whom they regard as apostates.

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