SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi Arabia said Thursday its military coalition will scale down operations in Yemen, an announcement that came as the death toll from an airstrike by the alliance on a market north of the Yemeni capital this week nearly doubled, reaching 119.
A U.N. official said 22 children were among those killed on Tuesday in the Hajja province, an area controlled by Yemen's Shiite rebels known as Houthis, the latest in a series of similar airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians since the Yemen war began.
The conflict pits the Shiite rebels and military units loyal to a former president against the internationally-recognized government, which is largely confined to the southern city of Aden. The fighting has killed more than 6,200 civilians, displaced millions and pushed the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.
The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab states intervened militarily in Yemen a year ago, launching first an airstrikes campaign in support of the internationally recognized government, then sending in elite forces, mostly from Gulf Arab states, in an effort to roll back the rebel gains.
The Houthis seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2014 and later swept across much of this country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri told The Associated Press over the phone from the kingdom's capital, Riyadh, that his country and its coalition partners would continue to provide air support to Yemeni forces battling the Houthis and their allies.
"The aim of the coalition is to create a strong cohesive government with a strong national army and security forces that can combat terrorism and impose law and order across the country," al-Asiri said.
Only "small" teams of coalition troops would remain on the ground to "equip, train, and advise" Yemeni forces, which are gradually replacing coalition forces, he said, adding that the coalition's primary task will from now on be to help build a Yemeni army.
"This takes time and it needs patience," he said.
Scaling down military operations, however, will not impact on the size of coalition naval and air assets deployed to protect Yemen's porous coastline on the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, he stressed.
Meanwhile, Meritxell Relano, UNICEF's deputy representative in Yemen, told the AP of the new death toll — almost double the 65 who were initially reported killed in Tuesday's strike on the market in Hajja — came from a UNICEF field team at the site.
The airstrike in the Houthi-controlled town of Mastaba also wounded 47 people, she said, and warned the death toll could rise further.
The attack on the market marked the second deadliest in Yemen since the Saudi-led airstrikes began, after an airstrike hit a wedding party in September, killing at least 131 people.
After the strike, the Houthis' TV network al-Masirah showed graphic footage of dead children and charred bodies next to sacks of flour and twisted metal. Witnesses said houses, shops and restaurants were also damaged, while cars caught fire.
Al-Asiri, the Saudi military spokesman, said the coalition was investigating the Mastaba attack, arguing that Tuesday's airstrikes targeted a "gathering area" for Houthi fighters, located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the market.
"Initial, independent and field sources say that 80 percent of the deaths are Houthi forces," said a comment scribbled on a map of the area he sent to the AP in Cairo.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the airstrike.
"Attacks directed against civilians and civilian objects, including populated markets, are strictly prohibited," he said, urging a "prompt, effective, independent, and impartial investigations into all allegations of serious violations."
On Wednesday, Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief in Yemen, told reporters at a Sanaa news conference that none of the warring parties in Yemen are fulfilling their obligations to protect civilians or facilitate humanitarian assistance.
The war has left Yemen fragmented and given the terror al-Qaida network a freehand to expand and seize cities and large swaths of land. Militants from the extremist Islamic State group have also taken advantage of the chaos to wage a series of deadly attacks across the country.
Michael reported from Cairo.