SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Violence in Yemen has killed an estimated 519 people the past two weeks, 90 of them children, and tens of thousands are fleeing their homes, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Thursday, signs of the humanitarian damage being wreaked in the Arab world's poorest nation in the rapid escalation of its conflict.
What began as a power grab by Shiite rebels dramatically escalated into a regional conflict after Saudi Arabia and its allies launched an air campaign on March 25 backing beleaguered President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his loyalists. The air campaign, along with ground fighting between Hadi's loyalists and the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies, are worsening the country's already chronic problems.
In battleground areas, hospitals are running out of supplies, water and electricity systems have broken down, and produce and other goods run low as fuel prices mount. Airstrikes and exchanges of shelling between the two sides have paralyzed the capital and other major urban centers, and residents are huddling in homes or fleeing.
The U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, expressed concern Thursday "for the safety of civilians caught in the middle." She said some 519 people have been killed and 1,700 wounded, many of them civilians, in violence the past two weeks. That would appear to include in fighting between the two sides before the air campaign began. Among the dead were 90 children.
"Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, some by crossing the sea to Djibouti and Somalia," she said. She said all sides must avoid targeting hospitals, schools, refugee camps and civilian infrastructure, particularly in civilian areas and said the U.N. was working with local authorities to provide emergency health kits and generators.
Yemen was already suffering from years of internal wars and political upheaval. More than half the population of 25 million lives in poverty. Water resources are dwindling, and the country has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. The country is already dealing with some 330,000 displaced people — Yemenis who fled their homes in previous conflicts.
"It is a terrible situation and it is moving so fast," Julien Harneis, the Yemen representative of the United Nations Children Fund, told The Associated Press. "We are heading toward a humanitarian disaster."
Harneis said 62 children were killed in the first four days of the operation — as many as were killed in all of 2014, when the Houthis were fighting to expand their hold. Some of the children were bystanders, and some were used as child soldiers, he said. Harneis estimated that about a third of the fighters on all sides are under the age of 18.
"Some as young as 13 and 14. I have seen this with my eyes in many parts of the country," Harneis said, speaking from Amman. "This has been a longtime problem in Yemen but it has been particularly visible in these last days."
In the southern city of Aden, medical supplies are running out. Doctors Without Borders, which operates in the city, said it has received over 500 wounded, including more than 110 on the first day of airstrikes. UNICEF is giving out midwife kits to treat injured civilians because of lack of supplies.
Some districts in the city have not had water for more than three days, Harneis said. Electricity to Aden, a city of nearly 1 million people, was cut by more than half to less than 60 megawatts a day after a transmission station was hit, according to an Electricity Ministry official in the city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
In al-Houta, a city north of Aden, people are fleeing fighting to nearby villages for safety and to find goods and produce, said 28-year old resident Ahmed Rageh. The local gas station has been closed for nearly three weeks. "It is a disastrous situation. Somalia is now in a better shape than us," he said.
In Sanaa, Hamoud Sadek, a vegetable store owner, said he has stopped bringing produce from the villages because he feared for his safety and could no longer afford the transport. Rumors of dwindling fuel supplies have sent gas prices up.
One Sanaa resident said rebel fighters demanded the keys to her building's roof to install anti-aircraft missiles. She said ammunition is stored in various places in residential areas. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the Houthis, who control the capital.
"We are stuck," she said. "When an armed man comes to your house and asks you for the keys to the roof, you can't say no. It is either this or they kill you."
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press correspondents Sarah El Deeb and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this report.