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Saudi Arabia disputes deadly airstrike on refugee camp in Yemen

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Hani Mohammed/AP

(Read caption) Smoke rises from an area due to Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, March 30, 2015.

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An airstrike killed dozens of civilians Monday at a camp for displaced families in northern Yemen, raising concerns of a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East’s most impoverished country.

The bombing appeared to be the single deadliest attack since a Saudi Arabia-led coalition launched a military campaign last week to halt the advance of Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, known as Houthis, who control the capital, Sanaa. 

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As the 10-member coalition of Sunni Arab governments presses its campaign – driven by its perception of Iran’s growing influence in the region – aid workers warn that the civilian death toll is sure to rise. Shelling overnight in Aden, the southern port city besieged by Houthi insurgents, killed 26 people, according to news reports that cited hospital officials. Warships have been deployed at Aden, a key target for Houthis. 

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told The Washington Post that as many as 40 people died and about 200 were wounded in Monday's attack in northern Hajjah Province. The Houthis said the Saudi-led coalition had bombed the Al-Mazraq refugee camp; Saudi officials denied that any airstrikes had been carried out there. 

“People in Al-Mazraq camp have been living in very harsh conditions since 2009, and now they have suffered the consequences of an airstrike on the camp,” Pablo Marco, Doctors Without Borders' operational manager for Yemen, said in a statement.

Saudi officials and others in the Sunni Arab coalition have threatened to send ground troops into Yemen. This has raised concerns that foreign occupiers could further destabilize Yemen, which is a haven for a powerful Al Qaeda affiliate.

As The Economist reports, “the only people to benefit from Yemen's disintegration may be Sunni jihadists pledging allegiance to either al-Qaeda or Islamic State.”

Long the target of American drone strikes, they have stepped up their attacks, stoking sectarian divisions that had rarely featured in Yemeni society. Diplomats have all but given up hope of sorting out the mess peacefully. Fighting may not do the trick either.

Saudi officials say their reason for military intervention in Yemen is to restore power to exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and to drive back the Houthis from the country’s south. 

The Shiite group recently came close to taking control of the country’s four largest cities, The New York Times reports. Coalition forces, including warships from Egypt, are still struggling to stop the Houthis' advance into Aden, the last major city under the control of forces loyal to Mr. Hadi. Reuters reports that airstrikes continued overnight, hitting rebel targets across the country.

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Meanwhile, Iran’s official news agency says Tehran flew aid to Yemen earlier today, according to The Associated Press, despite the Saudi-led coalition’s claim that it is in full control of the country’s airspace. The aid package, which contains 19 tons of medicines and medical equipment and two tons of food provided by the Iranian Red Crescent, is Iran’s first such shipment since airstrikes began last week.