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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

Yemen Houthis voice 'deep regret' over migrant deaths, say 44 killed

An investigation is underway [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 March, 2021

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The fire that broke out at the detention centre and killed 44 was caused by the Houthi rebels.

Yemen's Houthis expressed "deep regret" Wednesday over the deaths of dozens of migrants in a fire which Human Rights Watch said started when the rebels fired projectiles into a detention centre.

A senior official in the rebel movement, which is locked in a six-year campaign against the internationally recognised government, said that an investigation into the 7 March incident was under way.

"We express our deep regret over the accidental incident at the migrant detention centre in Sanaa," said Houthi official Hussein Al-Azi, according to the rebels' Al-Masirah television.

"The victims are 44 migrants and the wounded are 193, most of whom have gone to hospital, and there is an investigation into the reasons for the incident."

The United Nations called Tuesday for an independent investigation into the blaze, shortly after Human Rights Watch blamed it on "unidentified projectiles" fired by the Houthis.

"There must be an independent investigation into the cause of the fire," the UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told the Security Council.

He added that the "extraordinary, horrific fire" had reminded the world "of the plight of the migrant community".

The Iran-backed rebels control much of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa which was captured from the Saudi-backed government in 2014, sparking the devastating conflict.

'Force feed you’

HRW said detainees -- most of them Ethiopian -- had been protesting against overcrowding when camp guards rounded up hundreds of them into a hangar and fired two projectiles into the building.

"The migrants said the first projectile produced a lot of smoke and made their eyes water and sting. The second, which the migrants called a 'bomb', exploded loudly and started a fire," it said in a report.

Footage of the aftermath, which AFP obtained from a survivor, showed dozens of charred bodies piled on top of one another and strewn across the ground. One person was heard crying out in prayer.

The rights group said hundreds of injured migrants were being treated in hospitals in Sanaa where a "heavy security presence" had posed problems for humanitarian agencies seeking access. 

A video published by HRW showed security forces walking among survivors outside the facility as the fire raged inside, sending black smoke billowing into the sky. 

It cited interviewees as saying they saw the Houthis rearrest migrants who were not severely injured. 

Despite warnings, migrants from the nearby Horn of Africa continue to transit through war-torn and impoverished Yemen, seeking a better life in wealthy neighbouring Gulf Arab states.

The International Organization for Migration -- which has urged the Houthi rebels to provide unimpeded access to those injured in the fire -- said 140 Ethiopians had arrived in Addis Ababa from Yemen's government-controlled second city of Aden on Tuesday. 

Read more: How the UK became an accomplice in Yemen's famine

It was the first flight it has facilitated since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Meanwhile, about 30 Ethiopian migrants protested in Aden in front of the offices of international organisations to express their anger over the deadly fire.

One of them, Osmane, who witnessed the tragedy in Sanaa, said migrants in the centre had launched a hunger strike to "demand our release or repatriation".

He said the Houthis told them: "'We will force feed you and you will fight with us on the front’”.

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