Middle East

Yemen crisis: Blast at Hudaydah factory 'kills 35'

Aftermath of explosion at diary factory in Hudaydah, Yemen (1 April 2015) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A fire and explosion caused parts of the factory to collapse with workers still inside

At least 35 workers have been killed by a blast at a dairy factory in western Yemen, medics say, as Saudi-led air strikes continue against Houthi rebels.

There were conflicting reports about the cause of the overnight explosion in the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah.

Witnesses said coalition aircraft hit warehouses belonging to the factory. Anti-aircraft guns then returned fire, before the factory itself caught fire.

The UN has expressed alarm at the rising number of civilian casualties.

On Tuesday, the high commissioner for human rights warned that Yemen seemed to be "on the verge of total collapse".

The latest violence comes as dozens of Yemenis are reported to have crossed the Gulf of Aden in small boats to get to Somalia and Djibouti to escape the fighting and Saudi air strikes, the UN refugee agency has said.

The refugees braved a lengthy and dangerous journey after fleeing the city of Taez which was captured by Shia Houthi rebels last month and targeted by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in recent days.

The arrival of the Yemeni refugees reverses a decades-old trend in which thousands of Somalis have sought sanctuary in Yemen to escape their own country's violence - more than 1,500 arrived last week alone.

'Collateral damage'

A 10-nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting air strikes on the Houthis and allied army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh for a week, with the stated aim of "defending the legitimate government" of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many of those killed at the factory were crushed by rubble or burned to death, medics said

Mr Hadi fled abroad last week after the Zaidi Shia rebels advanced on the southern city of Aden, where he had taken refuge after the Houthis took full control of the capital Sanaa in January and placed him under house arrest.

Overnight, coalition aircraft targeted rebel positions in Hudaydah. Witnesses told the Associated Press that the factory caught fire after warplanes bombed nearby warehouses and rebel anti-aircraft batteries returned fire.

The blaze triggered explosions inside the factory that caused parts of the building to collapse with workers still inside, the witnesses said.

Two military officials told AP that the factory had been used by the rebels to store weapons, and that while the air strikes destroyed the warehouses, the factory was only partially destroyed. That suggested it might have been hit from the ground, they added.

The health authorities in Hudaydah province said at least 35 workers were killed, many of them crushed by rubble or burned to death.

Hudaydah's governor, Hassan al-Hai, said dozens of people were also wounded, but he did not say if the factory was hit by an air strike or shelling by the rebels.

The Saudi-led coalition also bombarded Houthi positions in Aden overnight. A military official told the AFP news agency that there were "many dead and wounded".

The coalition has insisted that it is trying to avoid killing civilians.

"Collateral damage can happen... but I confirm to you that the coalition takes all care," spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri was quoted as saying by AFP.

But on Tuesday Amnesty International accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of "turning a blind eye to civilian deaths", and the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) reported that at least 62 children had been killed and 30 hurt over the past week.

The Houthis have said their aim is to replace President Hadi's government, which they accuse of being corrupt. Their leader has refused to surrender to what he called the "unjustified aggression" by the coalition.

Regional Shia power Iran, which has denied accusations from Saudi Arabia that it is offering the rebels military assistance, has demanded an immediate halt to the air strikes.