SAADA, YEMEN – In a scene rife with chaos and crying, volunteers and a rescue squad pulled the bodies of 91 prisoners from the rubble of the Sa’ada City Remand Prison in southern Yemen on Tuesday. Early last Friday morning, United Arab Emirates (UAE) warplanes supported by the United States targeted the overcrowded prison, which houses up to 3,000 inmates from across Yemen and Africa. The attack was one of the deadliest since the war began in 2015.
At least 91 people were killed and more than 236 seriously injured in the attacks, which left bereaved families in shock across Yemen and Africa. Witnesses describe the scene of the attack in its first minutes as chaotic and tragic. Fighter jets were heard over the skies of Saada while people were sleeping, before three violent explosions were heard from the prison, red fires mixed with dust and smoke illuminated flying rubble. The bodies of prisoners fueled the inferno as the screams and cries of those that survived the initial onslaught echoed from bombed-out buildings.
The death toll is expected to rise, as many victims of the strike remain in critical condition and hospitals struggle to cope with a lack of medical supplies as a result of a Saudi Coalition-imposed siege that began in 2015. “The hospital is facing a very difficult situation… with casualties lying on the [hospital] floor,” as rescuers continue to claw through the rubble searching for survivors, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement. Yemen’s Ministry of Health has launched an urgent appeal abroad to send medical aid and doctors to Yemen, as hospitals are already crowded with a number of victims from previous airstrikes, as well as an urgent appeal for Yemeni citizens to donate blood.
Despite the Saudi-led Coalition denying any knowledge of the attack, international organizations – including the United Nations, International Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders – confirmed that the Coalition was responsible. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said that the UN chief had condemned the airstrikes by the Saudi-led Coalition against a detention center in Saada city. Doctors Without Borders called the airstrike “unjustifiable” and said that Saudi Arabia and its allies have “no way to deny that this is an airstrike; everyone in Saada city heard it.”
“This is the latest in a long line of unjustifiable airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led Coalition on places like schools, hospitals, markets, wedding parties, and prisons,” Ahmed Mahat, the head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Yemen, said in the wake of the attack.
"From what I hear from my colleague in Sa’ada there are many bodies still at the scene of the air strike, many missing people. It is impossible to know how many people have been killed. It seems to have been a horrific act of violence." -Ahmed Mahat, @MSF Head of Mission in Yemen
— MSF International (@MSF) January 21, 2022
A series of deadly attacks
The attack – which came after the UN Human Rights Council voted to end the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, the only international and independent body tasked with investigating the full extent of violations in the war – was not the only onslaught that took place this week. More than 14 people, mostly women and children, were killed when U.S.-backed fighter jets struck the home of a former high-ranking military official in Sana’a. And on Friday, at least six civilians, including a number of children, were killed and 18 injured after Saudi jets bombed a communications center in Hodeidah. Local authorities recovered the bodies of the victims, who were mostly children playing near the building. The attack, which leveled a three-story building to the ground, targeted Yemen’s internet infrastructure in a likely bid to quell reporting on the Saudi Coalition’s attack on the prison.
A swift and angry military response
The attacks sparked anger across Yemen and around the world. On Friday, massive crowds took to the streets across Yemen not only to condemn the prison attack and the recent Coalition bombardment of Saada, Sana’a, and al-Hodeida but also to blame the United States for supporting the Riyadh and Abdu Dhabi regimes. Protesters also appealed to the Yemen Army led by Ansar Allah to seek revenge for the recent attacks.
In retaliation for the attacks, the Yemen Army, led by Ansar Allah, launched military operations against both Saudi Arabia and UAE. Dubbed “Operation Yemen Hurricane,” the operations saw a flurry of ballistic missiles and drone attacks against the Saudi-led Coalition. On Monday, Yemeni forces launched massive strikes using large Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and Sammad-3 drones against sensitive targets in UAE and Saudi Arabia, including the Al-Dhafra Air Base south of Abu Dhabi, where American forces are stationed.
Two thousand American troops at Al-Dhafra took shelter in bunkers during the attack, which was intended as a warning to the United States that its continued support for Saudi Arabia is no longer acceptable and could be met by direct attacks, a high-ranking Ansar Allah military official told MintPress. Other sites in Abdu Dhabi and Dubai were targeted, while squadrons of Sammad-1 and Qasef-2K (Striker-2K) combat drones struck a number of Saudi-led Coalition military camps in Sharurah, a town in Saudi Arabia’s southern region of Najran.
The attack is the second on the UAE. The first took place on January 17, targeting sensitive sites including oil tanks in the Musaffah ICAD 3 area in addition to a construction site at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. Despite the Coalition’s increased attacks against Yemen, Yemen`s retaliatory attacks were met with denunciation by Coalition allies, including the Biden administration (which is currently mulling re-designating Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization, a move that could have devastating effects on an already starving Yemen) and the UN Security Council. Even Israel proclaimed its support for the UAE.
None of the aforementioned have yet to condemn Saudi Arabia for the attack on the prison or for other human rights violations committed in Yemen. The reality now is that condemnations mean nothing to the many Yemenis who believe that military escalation is the only effective way to deter Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to statements from Sana’a, the retaliatory attacks will not stop, whatever the denunciations, and will expand until the UAE withdraws from the country. “The UAE will no longer be safe. We are calling on foreign companies and investors to leave for the sake of their safety,” the Yemen Army has repeated in all its statements on the topic.
Feature photo | People look at the covered bodies of victims of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the northern Saada province of Yemen, Jan. 22, 2022. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.