‘Profoundly distressing’: UNESCO condemns Saudi-led bombing of historic Yemen capital

Yemenis search for survivors under the rubble of houses in the UNESCO-listed heritage site in the old city of Yemeni capital Sanaa, on June 12, 2015 following an overnight Saudi-led air strike. (AFP Photo / Mohammed Huwais)
The director-general of UNESCO has said she is “shocked” after an airstrike destroyed three houses in the Old City of Sanaa, where the oldest building dates back over 1,400 years.

Planes belonging to the anti-rebel coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, and endorsed by the United States, bombed a house, where a senior commander of the Shiite Houthi rebels, was purportedly hiding.

The airstrike, the first direct hit on the Old City since airstrikes began 11 weeks ago, caused the destruction of a trio of three-story buildings, and the death of five people, all presumably belonging to the same family. Houthi sources said there were six casualties, and five buildings were decimated.

“I am profoundly distressed by the loss of human lives as well as by the damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape. I am shocked by the images of these magnificent many-storyed tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble,” said Irina Bokova in a statement.

UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova (RIA Novosti / Vitaliy Belousov)

“This destruction will only exacerbate the humanitarian situation and I reiterate my call to all parties to respect and protect the cultural heritage in Yemen. This heritage bears the soul of the Yemeni people, it is a symbol of a millennial history of knowledge and it belongs to all humankind.”

The current Yemeni capital has been inhabited for over 2,500 years, and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. It features tightly packed rammed earth and burnt brick houses, mosques and public baths, all decorated with elaborate geometric patterns.

UNESCO, charged with preserving historic and natural landmarks, is the second UN agency to draw attention to the conflict this week. The turmoil has seen more than 2,500 lose their lives.

People search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by an air strike in Sana'a June 12, 2015. (Reuters / Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

"20.4 million people are now estimated to be in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, of whom 9.3 million are children," Jeremy Hopkins, deputy representative of UNICEF, the emergency relief arm of the UN, said in Sanaa on Thursday.

"The de facto blockade on Yemen's ports, though there is some easing, means fuel is not coming into the country, and since pumps are mechanized that means over 20 million people don't have access to safe water."

On Friday, the coalition issued a statement saying it wouldn’t stop its ground and bombing campaign until an April UN resolution, demanding Houthi withdrawal is implemented.

The Old Town of Sanaa, Yemen (image from wikipedia.org by flickr user ai@ce)

Yemen existed as two separate and often hostile states prior to reunification in 1990, and tensions have resurfaced since Shia President Saleh was deposed in 2012. His Shia supporters, reportedly aided by Iran, occupied the capital Sanaa in September last year.

With the current Sunni President Hadi forced into exile, other Sunni states, including most Gulf monarchies, Egypt and Pakistan have stepped in to return him to power, deploying a force of over 150,000 troops and 150 warplanes.