U.N. agency voices new concerns about civilian toll in Yemen

Renewed air strikes and heavy ground clashes in Yemen have intensified since Saudi Arabia ended a humanitarian pause on Sunday, inflicting a large number of civilian casualties, U.N. officials said Friday.

One of those strikes killed five Ethiopians on Thursday at a center for migrants needing assistance, the International Organization for Migration said. Two other migrants were wounded when Saudi aircraft bombed the agency’s Migrant Response Center in Haradh district in the Hajjah governorate in northern Yemen.

“These refugees had fled their homeland due to fear of persecution, and died in their country of refuge, where they hoped to be safe,” a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, said. “The protection of civilians should be paramount and we deplore the loss of so many civilian lives since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen.”

According to the U.N. human rights office, at least 1,037 civilians, including 130 women and 234 children, have lost their lives since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began March 26.

“Following the pause, the violence has resumed, including airstrikes in Aden, Ibb, Sada’ah, Dhale, and Sanaa,” said Cécile Pouilly, the human rights agency’s spokeswoman.

An airstrike also targeted a warehouse containing humanitarian supplies for a charity group, the Yemen office of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said..

Meanwhile, Iran agreed that an Iranian cargo vessel carrying humanitarian supplies destined for Yemen would hand over its cargo to the U.N. hub in Djibouti and not sail directly into Yemen.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Program, told McClatchy that the ship is carrying 2,500 tons of humanitarian aid, 1,200 tons of rice, 700 tons of wheat flour and 400 tons of canned fish.

The cargo will be transferred to WFP-chartered vessels for shipment to Yemeni ports, Byrs said.

Meanwhile, the U.N. officials were preparing the way for talks expected to begin Thursday in Geneva. U.N. special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was in Tehran Friday talking with Iranian officials, U.N. officials said.

Representatives of 16 countries, including the five permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are expected to attend.

Supporters of the exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi are backed by the Saudi coalition and the United States, while Houthi rebels who control the capital and large parts of the country are backed by Iran.

Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.