What began as a Saudi-led aerial campaign against the Houthi rebels has become so broad that critics accuse the coalition of collectively punishing all people living in areas under Houthi control.
HAJJA, Yemen — The airstrike slammed into Al-Sham water-bottling plant at the end of the night shift, killing 13 workers who were minutes away from heading home.
Standing among the strewn bottles, smoldering boxes and pulverized machines a few days after the airstrike, the owner, Ibrahim al-Razoom, searched in vain for any possible reason that warplanes from a Saudi-led military coalition would have attacked the place.
Nothing in the ruins suggested the factory was used for making bombs, as a coalition spokesman had claimed. And it was far from any military facility that would explain the strike as a tragic mistake: For miles around, there was nothing but desert scrub.
“It never occurred to me that this would be hit,” Razoom said.
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Of the many perils Yemen’s civilians have faced during the past six months of war, with starvation looming and their cities crumbling under heavy weapons, none have been as deadly as the coalition airstrikes. What began as a Saudi-led aerial campaign against the Houthis, the rebel militia movement that forced Yemen’s government from power, has become so broad and vicious that critics accuse the coalition of collectively punishing people living in areas under Houthi control.
Errant coalition strikes have ripped through markets, apartment buildings and refugee camps. Other bombs have fallen so far from any military target — like the one that destroyed al-Razoom’s factory — that human-rights groups say such airstrikes amount to war crimes. More than 1,000 civilians are believed to have died in the strikes, the toll rising steadily with little international notice or outrage.
Rather than turning more Yemenis against the Houthis, the strikes are crystallizing anger in parts of the country against Saudi Arabia and its partners, including the United States. The Obama administration has provided military intelligence and logistical assistance to the coalition, and U.S. weapons have been widely used in the air campaign.
Human Rights Watch has found U.S.-manufactured cluster munitions in the fields of Yemeni farmers. Near the site of airstrikes that killed 11 people in a mosque, researchers with Amnesty International saw an unexploded, 1,000-pound U.S. bomb. The United States is finalizing a deal to provide more weapons to Saudi Arabia, including missiles for its F-15 fighter jets.
Neighborhoods in the northern city of Saada have been so heavily bombed that locals joke grimly that the coalition has run out of buildings to hit. The shrinking pool of targets has not stopped the planes that circle daily over Sanaa, the capital, from bombing the same security buildings over and over again, with a bewildering and terrible frequency.
The Saudi-led coalition has rarely acknowledged killing civilians by mistake, even after the deadliest strikes, like the bombing of a residential compound for workers in Mokha in July that killed at least 63 people. Instead, the coalition blames the Houthis, accusing them of fighting from populated areas.
“Why would we acknowledge something that doesn’t exist?” said Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, the coalition’s spokesman, when asked whether the airstrikes had killed noncombatants. He said it should fall to Yemen’s exiled government or the United Nations to investigate such deaths.
Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said U.S. officials had asked “the Saudi government to investigate all credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from coalition-led airstrikes, and if confirmed, to address the factors that led to them.”
A tense political standoff erupted into war in March, after the Houthi militias ousted the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled abroad. Saudi Arabia launched its offensive with the stated goal of returning Hadi to power, but was motivated by far deeper anxieties, analysts said.
More than 4,500 people have been killed in the war. The ground war and Saudi restrictions on imports have deepened humanitarian suffering in Yemen, causing shortages of fuel, water and medical supplies while inflating prices of food and other goods.
The majority of civilians have been killed by coalition warplanes, often dropping U.S. munitions ranging from 250 to 2,000 pounds. There are no comprehensive tallies of the deaths. But the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner said Friday that of 1,527 civilians who died between the start of the Saudi offensive and June 30, at least 941 people were killed by airstrikes.