Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombed Shiite rebel positions across Yemen as a missile strike on a dairy factory killed 35 workers, authorities said, as both sides disputed who fired on it.
The attacks marked a week of air strikes by the Saudi-led campaign, which aims to weaken the Shiite rebels known as Houthis and forces allied with them, largely fighters loyal to Yemen's deposed leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Since their advance began last year, the Houthis have overrun Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and several provinces, forcing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country.
The air strikes targeted rebel-controlled army camps in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida and anti-aircraft guns there returned fire. In the firefight, missiles hit warehouses belonging to a factory that makes dairy products.
Parts of the dairy’s main building collapsed with workers still inside, five eyewitnesses and officials said. At least 35 workers died in the collapse, many of them crushed to death or burned alive, according to the medical centre in Hodeida.
The coalition blamed the Houthis for the attack, while Houthi-run media blamed the coalition.
Coalition spokesman Ahmed Asiri denied his warplanes caused the factory collapse. He said Houthi rebels and allied fighters launched missiles at it aiming to hit civilians out “of desperation from realizing results on the ground and because they have become now isolated inside cities”.
“They have targeted the dairy factory. The information we got from the ground is that mortars and ... rockets hit the factory and caused the death,” he said.
Two Yemeni military officials loyal to Mr Hadi said the factory had been used as a rebel weapons cache, and that while the air strikes flattened the warehouses, the main factory building was only partially destroyed — suggesting it might have been hit from the ground.
A Houthi spokesman, Mohammed Abdul Salam, said later that the coalition only struck civilians in its attacks, without elaborating.
The Hodeida factory deaths came a day after international aid groups expressed alarm over high civilian casualties in Yemen’s escalating crisis.
A report on Tuesday from the UN children's agency Unicef said 62 children were killed and 30 injured during the fighting in Yemen over the past week. It was not clear if the deaths were the result of air strikes or ongoing clashes between rival groups across the country.
Also yesterday, the UN human rights office in Geneva said its staffers in Yemen confirmed that at least 19 civilians died when air strikes hit a refugee camp near the Houthi stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen on Sunday, with at least 35 wounded, including 11 children.
Mr Asiri called on aid agencies to co-ordinate with the coalition and concerned authorities to ensure access to areas.
“The circumstances on the ground now necessitate that we find the appropriate environment for aid agencies to be present on the ground” and to ensure that the aid reaches the needy, he said.
Critics of the Houthis allege they are an Iranian proxy — a claim the rebels deny. Iran has provided aid to the rebels, but both Tehran and the Houthis deny it has armed them.
In Tehran, dozens of Yemeni expatriates, including clerics and students, took to the streets today to denounce the air strikes. The protesters burned photos of Saudi King Salman and marched outside the Saudi Embassy.