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Yemen: Houthis admit teargas fired by guards caused deadly fire at detention centre

Houthis say they have detained 11 men from the security forces and senior officials over fire that left 45 migrants dead
Members representing African communities in Yemen gather to speak in front of the offices of the International Organisation for Migration in Sanaa on 13 March 2021 (AFP)

Yemen's Houthi rebels have admitted that teargas canisters fired by guards caused a fire that killed 45 migrants at a detention centre earlier this month. 

The Houthi interior ministry said it had detained 11 men from the security forces and senior officials. 

They said the tear gas was fired to end a protest at the facility, run by the Houthis, which held 900 migrants in cramped conditions. Most were from Ethiopia. 

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More than 200 people were injured during the fire at the facility, in the capital, Sanaa. 

Video analysed by Human Rights Watch confirmed that some migrants could not escape after being overcome by smoke from the fire, and that walls had to be broken down to let those inside escape the blaze. 

The Houthi findings confirm what two Ethiopian survivors told Middle East Eye after the fire, namely that it was caused by projectiles being fired into crowded cells as inmates protested about their living conditions. 

IOM blamed

The United Nations migration agency IOM said the 7 March fire engulfed a hangar-like building holding around 350 people from among 900 being held at the Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority Holding Facility at Sanaa airport.

The migration group's staff were offering emergency care to more than 170 injured people, of whom at least 90 were in serious condition.

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Houthi authorities had earlier blamed the IOM for the fire, saying the organisation had failed to repatriate detainees, leading to overcrowding inside the detention centre.

In recent years, thousands of people from across east Africa hoping to cross into Saudi Arabia have got stuck in Yemen. Hundreds of them were transferred over the past few years to the Sanaa centre, which officials say is overcrowded. 

Amnesty International in October also described "hellish" conditions in Saudi detention centres.

Amnesty spoke to migrants who claimed that the Houthis had forced them to cross into the kingdom at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, sometimes under gunfire. 

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