DUBAI • Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen killed at least 31 civilians on Saturday, the United Nations said, an apparent retaliation after a Saudi fighter jet crashed with Iran-backed Houthi rebels claiming to have shot it down.
The Tornado aircraft came down last Friday in northern Al-Jawf province during an operation to support government forces, a rare crash that prompted air strikes in the area by a Saudi-led military coalition fighting the rebels.
The deadly violence follows an upsurge in fighting in northern Yemen between the warring parties that threatens to worsen the war-battered country's humanitarian crisis.
"Preliminary field reports indicate that on Feb 15 as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in strikes that hit the Al-Hayjah area... in Al-Jawf governorate," said a statement from the office of the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Ms Lise Grande.
She denounced the "terrible strikes", saying: "Under international humanitarian law, parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians. Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility."
The rebels said women and children were among the dead and wounded.
The coalition conceded the "possibility of collateral damage". A coalition statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency did not specify the fate of the crew or the cause of the crash, and the fate of the crew remained uncertain yesterday.
But the Houthi rebels released footage of what they called the launch of their "advanced surface-to-air missile" and the moment it struck the jet, sending it crashing down in a ball of flames.
"The downing of a Tornado in the sky above Al-Jawf is a major blow to the enemy and an indication of remarkable growth in Yemeni (rebel) air defence capabilities," Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdelsalam tweeted.
The insurgents reported multiple coalition air strikes on Saturday in the Houthi-controlled area where the jet went down as residents gathered near the smouldering wreckage, according to the rebels' Al-Masirah television.
The escalation follows fierce fighting around the Houthi-held capital Sanaa.
The rebels are seen to be advancing on several fronts towards Al-Hazm, the regional capital of Al-Jawf, which has been mostly controlled by the Houthis, but its capital remains in the hands of the Saudi-backed government.
The downing of a coalition warplane marks a setback for a military alliance known for its air supremacy and signals the rebels' increasingly potent military arsenal.
"At the start of the conflict, the Houthis were a ragtag militia," said Ms Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. "Today, they have massively expanded their arsenal with the help of Iran and its proxy Hizbollah", Lebanon's powerful Shi'ite movement.
Houthi rebels now possess weapons bearing signs of Iranian origin, according to a UN report, in potential violation of a UN arms embargo. Some of the new weapons "have technical characteristics similar to arms manufactured in the Islamic Republic of Iran", said the report, compiled by a panel of UN experts tasked with monitoring the embargo.
The panel did not say whether the weapons were delivered to the Houthis directly by the Iranian government, which has repeatedly denied sending them arms.
The coalition intervened against the Houthis in 2015, in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, and sparked what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.