CAIRO (AP) — An airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition struck a hotel near Yemen's capital on Wednesday, killing at least 41 people as the alliance stepped up airstrikes against the Houthi rebels and their allies in and around Sanaa.
The escalation comes amid a standoff in Sanaa between the two main components of the rebel alliance, Shiite fighters from the north known as Houthis and loyalists of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. There are mounting fears of street violence.
There were conflicting reports on the identity of the victims of the hotel strike, with doctors saying they were farmers and officials and witnesses saying they included rebels. The coalition has been battling the rebels, who control Sanaa, since early 2015.
The fighter jets targeted a two-story hotel in the town of Arhab, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the capital, Sanaa, officials said.
Bodies were still being retrieved from the rubble, witnesses said. Another airstrike hit a checkpoint manned by the Houthis a few kilometers (miles) from the hotel, they added. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters. The witnesses requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
Footage of the area aired on al-Masirah TV, a Houthi-run satellite news network, showed bodies hanging out of a simple cinderblock building. Bystanders wrapped mangled corpses into blankets to try to carry them away.
The TV network said 41 civilians were killed and that the death toll was expected to rise further. Officials and witnesses told The Associated Press that the death toll had reached 60 and that the majority of those killed were Houthis rebels.
Physician Ali al-Rakmi, who was helping with rescue efforts, said there were more than 100 people inside at the time of the attack, all qat farmers. The plant's leaves are chewed for a stimulant effect, a widespread tradition among Yemeni men.
Al-Rakmi said they had retrieved 35 bodies so far.
Fahd Marhab, head of the Umrah hospital, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the site of the airstrike, said there were no wounded and that all the people in the hotel were killed in the 3 a.m. airstrike. He also said that they were mostly farmers.
Conflicting accounts are common in the aftermath of deadly airstrikes.
There was no immediate comment from the coalition.
The Saudi-led coalition is waging an extensive air campaign against the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh, which together control much of northern Yemen, including Sanaa. They are trying to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals, and markets, killing thousands of civilians and prompting rights groups to accuse the coalition of war crimes. Activists have called upon Western countries, including the United States and Britain, to cease their military support for the coalition.
The conflict has killed over 10,000 civilians, displaced 3 million people and pushed the impoverished nation to the brink of famine.
The coalition has recently stepped up airstrikes in and around Sanaa, targeting army compounds and other Houthi locations.
The rebel alliance has meanwhile showed signs of fracturing, with the Houthis and Saleh loyalists trading accusations and threats ahead of a rally on Thursday to mark the 35th anniversary of the founding of Saleh's party, the General People's Congress.
Sanaa is packed with armed men and armored vehicles, fueling fears of open clashes between Saleh's forces and the Houthis. Saleh has complained that the rebels have sidelined him and his loyalists, leaving them out of military and political decisions. The two also differ on recent U.N. initiatives aimed at ending the war.
On Tuesday, the Popular Committees, the armed wing of Houthi movement, issued a statement threatening Saleh, saying he had "crossed red lines" which he described them as "militias."
"Describing the Popular Committees as militia is a stab in the back," the statement read. "Saleh has to bear the consequences for what he said."
Hours later, Sanaa-based general prosecutor Abdel-Aziz al-Baghdadi announced that he is taking legal measures against dozens of Saleh's party members over allegations that they harmed national security and spread false news.
Saleh and the Houthis were always unlikely allies. As president, Saleh fought the Houthis from 2004 till 2009 in their northern heartland of Saada. After he stepped down following a 2011 uprising, Saleh and the Houthis struck an alliance of convenience with a common enemy — Hadi's government and his Islamist allies in the Islah party.