The death toll from an airstrike on a wedding party in Yemen has jumped to 131, medics said on Tuesday, in one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Yemen's war that drew strong condemnation from the UN secretary-general.
A Saudi-led Arab coalition that has air supremacy over Yemen has strongly denied any role in the wedding party carnage, and a coalition spokesman suggested that local militias may have fired the projectiles.
The U.S.-backed coalition has been targeting the Iranian-allied Houthis mostly by air across Yemen since March with the goal of ousting the war's dominant armed faction from regions it has seized since last year, including the capital Sanaa in the north, and to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
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Residents said on Monday that two missiles tore through tents in the Red Sea village of Al-Wahijah, near the ancient port of Al-Mokha, where a local man affiliated with the Houthi group was holding his wedding reception.
The area is deemed the gateway to the Bab al-Mandeb strait connecting the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea, a vital route for oil tanker and other maritime traffic between Asia and Europe.
A resident of Al-Wahijah had said on Monday that 12 women, eight children and seven men had died in the airstrike, and a local official put the death toll at 30.
On Tuesday, a medical source at Maqbana hospital, where most of the casualties were taken, said the death toll had climbed to 131 people, including many women and children.
The United Nations and international rights groups have expressed alarm at the escalating number of civilian deaths in Yemen - at least 2,355 out of more than 4,500 people killed from the end of March to Sept. 24, according to figures released by the UN human rights office in Geneva on Tuesday.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the high death toll at the wedding event and warned that any intentional attack on civilians violates international law and must be investigated.
Arab coalition denial
Arab coalition spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asseri said there had been no air operations in the area in the al-Mokha area for three days so "this is totally false news".
He added that the coalition would concede a mistake if it made one but Yemen's conflict was chaotic with a grab bag of armed groups active, and that civilians sometimes could not differentiate between cannon, mortar and Katyusha rocket fire.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said it had a team on the ground in Yemen trying to verify details of the wedding party bloodshed.
"The (Hadi-led) government in exile seemed to have acknowledged it and said it was a mistake ... I don't think we have much doubt that this incident took place and it is a grave incident," Colville told a news conference.