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‘Jewel’ of Islamic culture blasted; Saudi denies targeting Sanaa’s heritage site

‘Jewel’ of Islamic culture blasted; Saudi denies targeting Sanaa’s heritage site

Prospects of Sunday’s Yemen talks dim.

By (AFP)

Published: Sat 13 Jun 2015, 2:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:06 PM

Yemenis search for survivors under the rubble of houses in the UNESCO-listed heritage site in the old city of Yemeni capital Sanaa, on June 12- Photo: AFP

Sanaa — Unesco condemned an apparent attack on the Yemeni capital’s old quarter on Friday that killed five people and destroyed homes in the centuries-old heritage site described as a “jewel” of Islamic culture.

The attack on heritage site occurred a day before Yemen’s warring factions are to meet for UN-sponsored talks in Geneva on Sunday in their first bid to break a deadlock after more than two months of Saudi-led air strikes. But there are few if any signs that either is ready to make the compromises necessary for a deal.

The coalition led by Riyadh denied claims that it had carried out an air strike there, suggesting instead that a rebel ammunition cache may have exploded.

The spokesman for the coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed Al Assiri, said there was no raid on the site. “For sure we did not conduct any operation inside (the) city,” Assiri said.

“We know that those sites are very important.” He said rebels may have been hiding weapons or ammunition in the area.

“Several days before they had an explosion in one of their storage” areas, he said of the Houthi rebels. “So it could be one of these.” Sanaa’s old city has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and was a major centre for the propagation of Islam, boasting more than 100 mosques, 14 public baths and more than 6,000 houses built before the 11th century. It was inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List in 1986.

Residents said a pre-dawn strike was the first direct hit there since the launch of the campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in March.

A missile hit the Qassimi neighbourhood without exploding, but killed five residents, including a woman and a child, and destroyed three three-storey houses, medics and witnesses said.

“We saw the flashing light of the missile launched from a plane.

We expected it to explode, but it did not... We felt the impact of the missile when it hit the ground,” said resident Ahmed Al Ameri.

Unesco director-general Irina Bokova said she was “profoundly distressed by the loss of human lives as well as by the damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape.” She said she was shocked by the images of these magnificent many-storeyed tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble”.

“The historic value and memories enshrined in these sites have been irreparably damaged or destroyed.”

“This destruction will only exacerbate the humanitarian situation and I reiterate my call to all parties to respect and protect cultural heritage in Yemen,” she said.

Naji Saleh Thawaba, head of Yemen’s General Organisation for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen also condemned the attack.

“I never imagined that this site could one day become a target; even if there were enemy (positions) in the area, it should never be a target for air strikes,” he said.

The upper storeys of houses rising above ground floors constructed of stone are built of rammed earth and burnt brick, with each building decorated with geometric patterns of fired bricks and white gypsum, inspired by traditional Islamic art.

In Sanaa, there were conflicting statements from residents about whether rebels had occupied one of the houses.

The old city has already suffered some damage from air strikes on nearby targets, including the defence ministry, prompting a protest from Unesco in May.

In other developments on Friday, Assiri said rocket fire from Yemen killed two civilians at a mosque during Friday prayers in a Saudi border community.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s parties are heading to Geneva for UN-sponsored negotisations from Sunday. But there are few signs that either is ready to make the compromises.

The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has said the talks can end over two months of conflict that has killed almost 2,600 people, and save the Arabian Peninsula country from permanent division.

But he also said on Friday that the sides would initially not even sit at the same table.

“All the parties are still barricaded behind their positions and continue to bet on war rather than a political settlement,” said Abdel Bari Taher, a Yemeni analyst.

This may be because President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi insists that the talks be limited to discussing the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for the Houthis to quit Yemen’s main cities and recognise his authority.

 But it may also be because the Iranian-allied Houthis see little reason to give ground, having increased the territory under their control despite 11 weeks of aerial bombing by a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia. — AFP

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