SANAA, Yemen – Dozens of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes hit the rebel stronghold Saada in northern Yemen, forcing hundreds of families to flee the area, security officials and Shiite Houthi rebels said Saturday.
The raids come after the Saudi-led coalition ordered civilians in rebel strongholds to flee by nightfall Friday and declared the entire region a "military target." It warned it will strike anything in the region, even as the Saudis pressed for a ceasefire to begin next week.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Ali Asiri, the coalition spokesman, said in a televised press conference that the strikes have targeted multiple buildings belonging to Houthi leadership, weapons stores and rebel encampments in the region bordering Saudi Arabia.
He accused the Houthis of preventing area residents from leaving the area under fire. Several tribal officials said the Houthis were making it difficult for residents to leave by removing petrol from the market and using it instead for their war effort.
Houthi spokesman Hamed al-Bokheiti denied the accusation, and said that on the contrary, the Houthis opened camps in Yemen's capital Sanaa to receive refugees and those who remain in Saada are people who refused to leave.
"Saada is living a day of complete humanitarian catastrophe," said al-Bokheiti, adding that the airstrikes have damaged the area's historic Imam Hadi Mosque.
More than 20 raids targeted Marran, a small mountain town where the Houthis originated, security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In a posting on its Twitter account Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said: "With or without advanced warning, direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited."
The Saudi-led offensive in support of embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which started March 26, aims to diminish the military capabilities of the Houthis.
The United Nations says the conflict has killed more than 1,400 people since March 19, by airstrikes and fighting on the ground. Humanitarian organizations say they face severe difficulties delivering aid to citizens affected by the ongoing conflict, because of the violence, a severe fuel shortage and difficulty accessing warehouses.
In a report released Sunday, Human Rights Watch said the coalition may have used cluster bombs in previous airstrikes in Saada. It said satellite imagery indicates the munitions landed "within 600 meters of several dozen buildings in four to six village clusters." Cluster bombs spread dozens of bomblets over a wide area, which can kill or maim civilians long after a conflict ends.