A protected 2,500-year-old cultural heritage site in Yemen’s capital, Sana, was obliterated in an explosion early Friday, and witnesses and news reports said the cause was a missile or bomb from a Saudi warplane. The Saudi military denied responsibility.
The top antiquities-safeguarding official at the United Nations angrily condemned the destruction of ancient multistory homes, towers and gardens, which also killed an unspecified number of residents in Al Qasimi, a neighborhood in Sana’s Old City area.
“I am profoundly distressed by the loss of human lives as well as the damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape,” said the official, Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“I am shocked by the images of these magnificent many-story tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble,” she said in a statement posted on the Unesco website, calling on all antagonists in the Yemen conflict to respect the country’s cultural treasures.
“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,” Ms. Bokova said.
Photographs from the scene and witness accounts posted on social media said the attack destroyed at least five houses and caused irreparable damage to the area, registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Unesco statement said the damaged area in Sana’s Old City had been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and “bears witness to the wealth and beauty of the Islamic civilization.”
It was considered a major center for the propagation of Islam after the religion’s beginnings in the seventh century. According to Saba, Yemen’s official news agency, the Old City boasted more than 100 mosques, 14 public baths and more than 6,000 houses built before the 11th century.
A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen, the Middle East’s most impoverished country, for more than two months in a concerted campaign against the Houthi insurgent group, which is allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.
Hours after the destruction in Sana’s Old City, there conflicting accounts of the precise cause. Saba asserted without attribution that a “Saudi bombing raid” had been responsible and that at least six people had been killed. A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that the coalition did not carry out an attack and suggested that a rebel ammunition storehouse might have exploded. Houthi fighters quoted in local news outlets denied having anything to do with the destruction.
The Saudis have said their aerial bombings are aimed strictly at military targets. But according to the World Health Organization, more than 2,500 people have been killed and more than 11,000 wounded in the two-month campaign, and fears have grown steadily that the nation of 25 million is verging on collapse, with 80 percent of the population in need of humanitarian aid.
The Old City destruction in Sana came a few days before peace talks sponsored by the United Nations are scheduled to be convened in Geneva to find a solution to the Yemen crisis.
Map | U.S.-Supplied Cluster Bombs Used in Yemen Annotated maps showing the Houthi rebels’ drive south, U.S. airstrikes and historical divisions.
Destruction of cultural antiquities in the Middle East, one of the cradles of civilization, has now become an integral part of the mayhem convulsing the region.
Islamic State insurgents in Syria and Iraq have flaunted their vandalism of treasured archaeological sites and historically important relics in recent months.
Two weeks ago, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution aimed at thwarting and prosecuting antiquities vandals and smugglers.
Interactive Feature | How Is the Conflict Affecting You or Your Family? We want to hear from people in Yemen affected by the continuing violence. Help us tell the story there.
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(via NY Times)