By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) – More than 80 refugees died this week in an army air raid on a camp in north Yemen where Shi’ite rebels are challenging the authority of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a camp source and news reports said Thursday.
Local and international rights groups condemned the attack, which follows reports of dozens killed in shelling in a market town Monday, and called on the government to ensure civilians are protected.
A refugee at the improvised camp at Adi in Harf Sufyan, at the center of fighting which erupted in early August, said about 87 people died in the raid Wednesday afternoon.
The source, who did not want to reveal his name, said 87 bodies were buried Thursday.
“The camp was taken by surprise by the air force bombing them,” he said. “When one plane starting firing some people ran toward the water canal, but they were killed when the plane fired at them again.”
The independent website News Yemen said 85 people died.
“An air raid hit them in the area when they were sleeping under trees and plastic awnings,” it said, citing witnesses. It said the air force then staged a second raid on the camp.
The rebels, who earlier this week posted images of dead and injured from an alleged air raid in al-Talh, accused the government on their website of committing “brutal crimes.”
The Yemen Center for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization, said it had evidence that planes had targeted a crowded market area in al-Talh, causing dozens of casualties.
“The Center calls on the Yemeni government, as the party responsible for protecting lives, to order an end to targeting civilians,” a statement said, asking for “humanitarian corridors” so people and aid could move in safety.
A government statement said there was no refugee camp in the area but did not confirm or deny the incident. It has not commented on the reports of deaths in al-Talh.
The official September 16 website reported military operations in Harf Sufyan but did not mention the air strike.
“Armed force and security units managed to teach the rebels hard lessons and severe losses with daring operations,” it said.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “The Yemeni government should be investigating what may have been a horrific attack on civilians. Civilians should never be attacked.”
The government in Sanaa says the rebels, referred to as Houthis after their leaders’ clan, want to restore a Shi’ite state that fell in the 1960s.
The rebels say they want autonomy and accuse the Western and Saudi-backed Saleh of tyranny, corruption and escalating a conflict over central control that began in 2004.
U.N. aid agencies say more than 100,000 people have fled their homes during the surge in fighting. They launched an appeal in Geneva last month for $23.5 million to help Yemen. Thousands are staying in tented camps in mountainous territory.
Media have had difficulty accessing the conflict zone in Saada and Amran provinces and verifying conflicting reports from each side.
They have accused the government of using Saudi jets and weaponry. Sanaa denies this and accuses Iran of ties to the rebels, who belong to the Shi’ite Zaydi sect.