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Mar 31, 9:34 AM EDT

UN, Red Cross alarmed over Yemen casualties in airstrikes


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AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- Saudi-led airstrikes pounded Yemen's Shiite rebels for the sixth day Tuesday, destroying missiles and weapons depots controlled by the rebels as international aid organizations expressed alarm over the high civilian casualties from the strikes and the violence roiling the country.

The airstrikes' campaign by Sunni Arab states, which began last Thursday, is meant to halt the advance by the Shiite rebels known as Houthis who have overrun the country with the help of the deposed president's loyalists and forced Yemen's current president to flee abroad.

The U.N. human rights office in Geneva said that in the past five days, at least 93 civilians have been killed and 364 wounded in five Yemeni cities engulfed in the violence, including the capital, Sanaa. The overall figures are likely much higher and it was not immediately clear if the casualties cited by Geneva referred to just airstrikes or the strikes and fighting between Yemen's warring factions.

Overnight and into early hours Tuesday, the coalition bombed the Iran-backed rebels around Sanaa, according to Yemeni military and security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Along with warplanes, warships and naval artillery were used to deter the Houthis and their allies loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh from advancing into the southern port city of Aden. It was not immediately clear which coalition countries the ships in the waters off Aden belong to.

Over the past days, the airstrikes have targeted at least nine of Yemen's 21 provinces and have prevented the Houthis from reaching Aden, the former capital of the once-independent south, where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi declared a temporary capital after fleeing rebel-controlled Sanaa.

Hadi, who was a close U.S. ally against Yemen's powerful al-Qaida affiliate, fled the country last week, but remains Yemen's internationally recognized leader. The U.S. has provided support to the Saudi-led coalition but is not carrying out direct military action.

Meanwhile, Iran said it sent an aid shipment to Yemen, according to the official IRNA news agency - Tehran's first such delivery since the airstrikes started. The aid contained 19 tons of medicines and medical equipment and two tons of food provided by the Iranian Red Crescent, IRNA said.

The agency reported that the aid was delivered by air early Tuesday but did not say where the cargo landed. The coalition has bombed a number of rebel-held airports and has announced it is in full control of Yemen's airspace.

The conflict in Yemen marks a major escalation in the regional struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which also back rival sides in Syria's civil war. Arab leaders unveiled plans at a conference Sunday in Egypt to form a joint military intervention force for Yemen, which could raise tensions further.

Critics of the Houthis charge that they are an Iranian proxy. Iran has provided aid to the rebels, but both Tehran and the Houthis deny it has armed them. Iran reiterated those denials Tuesday.

"Claims about the dispatch of weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen are completely fabricated and sheer lies," said the Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham.

Afkham criticized Saudi-led airstrikes, saying they have caused a high number of casualties and extensive damage

From Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal insisted that Yemen's security was integral to the Gulf Arab region's overall security.

"We are not warmongers, but if the drums of war call for it, we are prepared," Saud said in a speech to the consultative Shura Council. "The Houthi militias and the former president (Saleh), with the Iranian support, insist on messing in Yemen."

Tuesday's statement from Geneva said U.N. human rights staffers in Yemen verified that at least 19 civilians died when airstrikes hit a refugee camp near the Houthi stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen, with at least 35 wounded, including 11 children.

There were different reports of casualty figures from Monday's strike. The Houthi rebels said 40 people died while Doctors Without Borders tweeted that 29 people were dead on arrival at a hospital it supports and that it treated two dozen wounded, among them women and children.

However, witnesses told The Associated Press that the camp - used to house people displaced by an earlier conflict that ended five years ago - is now occupied by Houthi forces and that most of those killed were fighters.

The U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Tuesday said he was shocked by Monday's airstrike at the camp for displaced people and called on all sides to protect civilians from harm and to resolve their differences through dialogue rather than through force.

"The situation in Yemen is extremely alarming, with dozens of civilians killed over the past four days," Al Husseins said. "The country seems to be on the verge of total collapse."

Also from Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday called for the urgent removal of obstacles to the delivery of vital medical supplies needed to treat casualties from a week of deadly clashes and air strikes in Yemen.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Geir Moulson in Berlin and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.

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