SANAA, Yemen — Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Shiite rebels and their allies in Yemen destroyed historic houses on Friday in the center of the capital, Sanaa, a UNESCO world heritage site. Rescue teams digging through the debris pulled the bodies of six civilians from under the rubble.
The bombing drew swift condemnation from the U.N. cultural agency, whose chief expressed sorrow at the loss of human life and the destruction of priceless architectural heritage.
Initially, local residents believed the warplanes had targeted a house occupied by a senior rebel commander, but officials and witnesses later said there were no Shiite rebels among the victims.
The impact of the missiles flattened at least three houses and caused cracks in surrounding buildings, which are cemented to one another, leaving large sections of the old city's district at the risk of collapse.
At a destroyed four-story building, an Associated Press reporter saw a pile of bricks, dust and wood mingled with clothes, kitchenware and water tanks, which are traditionally kept on roofs. An adjacent three-story building was split in half, wooden window frames dangling from the upper floors. Rescue workers were covered with dust as they searched for victims.
Most of the old city's three-to-four-story buildings had been emptied out weeks ago, as their residents left in fear of the airstrikes. The Saudi-led coalition launched the campaign in March, in an effort to halt the power grab by Yemen's Shiite rebels, known as Houthis.
Mohammed al-Raddni, a neighbor whose grandfather lives next door to one of the destroyed buildings, said those killed in Friday's airstrikes included three women and two men, one of whom was a doctor. A 16-year-old teenager remains under the rubble, said al-Raddni.
"What do they want from us? This is unfair. Why don't they go search for Houthis somewhere else," shouted Zahwa Hammoud, an elderly woman dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing, as she looked at the damage.
Hammoud, one of few residents remaining in the neighborhood, said there was a "deafening sound that made me feel my ears exploding" when the missiles struck.
A police car with a loudspeaker urged residents to stay away from the rubble.
Online activists posted photographs of the damaged parts of the old city of Sanaa, known as al-Qasimi. The old city dates back 2,500 years and is one of the most popular and historic tourist attractions in the Yemeni capital, famous for its decorated buildings made of packed earth with burnt brick towers.
UNESCO's general director condemned the attack that targeted "the world's oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape" and expressing sorrow for the loss of lives.
"I am shocked by the images of these magnificent many-storied tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble," Irina Bokova said in the statement. She urged the warring parties to preserve the heritage of Yemen, which "bears the soul of the Yemeni people" and "belongs to all humankind."
UNESCO said that since the beginning of the conflict, several historic monuments across Yemen have suffered damage. It said that on June 9, the Ottoman era al-Owrdhi historical compound, outside the walls of Sanaa's old city, was severely damaged.
The Saudi-led airstrikes, along with ground fighting between different warring parties, have killed 1,037 civilians, including 234 children, between mid-March and May. More than a million people have been displaced by the violence, according to U.N. estimates.