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Saudi-Led Coalition Ramps Up Airstrikes in Yemen

09/20/2015 | 09:35pm US/Eastern

SAN'A, Yemen?A Saudi-led military coalition escalated airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen over the weekend, as its ground troops prepare for an anticipated offensive toward the capital, San'a.

Eight strikes hit a school Sunday in San'a that is connected to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, local security officials said. Other strikes Sunday caused dozens of casualties in the southern city of Ibb and in the northern Sa'ada province, officials in those places said.

The weekend's strikes included one that hit San'a's Old City, a UNESCO-designated heritage site. At least 31 people were killed and 120 wounded in that attack and others in San'a late Friday night, according to Tamim al-Shami, a spokesman for the Houthi-controlled health ministry.

The Saudi coalition, which consists mainly of Sunni Muslim-majority Persian Gulf states, has been trying since March to oust the Houthis, a rebel militant group that is part of the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Saudi Arabia and its backers, which include the U.S., see the Houthis as an illegitimate movement supported by Shiite Iran. They want to restore power to Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the exiled Yemeni president, in what has increasingly come to be seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

After several months of air strikes and a stepped-up ground campaign, the Saudi coalition made significant advances against the Houthis starting in July. The coalition first took the southern port city of Aden before wresting control of several southern provinces in August.

Coalition troops, led by the United Arab Emirates, are now pressing an assault in the central Marib province, which lies east of San'a and contains much of Yemen's energy wealth.

The Houthis originally took San'a last September before forcing Mr. Hadi to flee to Aden in February and then into exile in Saudi Arabia in March.

Damage and death caused by the relentless strikes, however, has raised concern among human rights groups about the growing civilian toll, as well as the effects on the country's historical sites.

Residents of San'a's Old City, where many structures date back several centuries, said there were no military targets in the area. They said those who were killed weren't politically active.

Eleven members of one family, the al-Ainis, were killed in strikes late Friday, family members said. The family worked in the farming and vegetable-selling business, they said.

"We are poor people and my husband is disabled, and we don't know why the Saudis targeted us," said Subhiah al-Maswari, whose husband is part of the al-Aini family.

Abdullah al-Hadrami, a neighbor of the al-Ainis, said that a man from Asabah family was also killed and 12 members of that family were wounded in the same airstrike.

"Both the al-Aini and Asabah families are farmers of vegetables that have nothing to do with politics," he said.

Another strike hit the Old City in June, killing several people and knocking down buildings.

A Saudi coalition spokesman didn't return requests for comment on the Old City strikes. Saudi Arabia's interior ministry said Sunday that two Saudi border guards were killed after coming under fire from Yemeni territory.

In total, the United Nations estimates 4,500 people have been killed in Yemen since March, about a third of them civilians.

UNESCO, a U.N. agency focused on culture, science and preservation, added San'a's Old City to its list of about 1,000 world heritage sites in 1986. The list is composed of places UNESCO deems are of cultural significance and are worthy of preservation.

The Old City's architecture is typified by multi-story houses made of stone, brick and mud. Many are very old. Yahia Saree, whose house was damaged in the attacks, said the structure was built more than 700 years ago.

People are thought to have inhabited the area for more than two millennia.

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com

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