UK denies being ‘party’ to Yemen war as civilian deaths mount

26th Apr 2019
UK denies being ‘party’ to Yemen war as civilian deaths mount

A wounded child gets treatment at Mutahidon hospital after an airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition in Sana’a, Yemen, on April 7, at least 5 schoolgirls were killed and 34 people wounded in the airstrike (Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency)

Hamed Chapman

The UK Government has denied that it is “party” to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, despite reports that five British special forces commandos were wounded in gun battles while on secret missions there.

Members of the Special Boat Service (SBS) were shot while fighting against Ansar Allah [Houthi] rebels in the Saadah area in the north of the country, according to the Mail on Sunday. The five wounded were thought to be among 30 Britons secretly operating in Yemen.

The report of British involvement came shortly after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported last month that around 5,000 were killed or injured in Yemen in 2018, an average of almost 100 each week. A fifth of casualties were children, which counted for 410 deaths and 542 injuries.

When challenged in Parliament on March 26, Foreign Office Minister, Mark Field, repeated that “in relation to special forces we do not comment either to confirm or deny any involvement” though he confirmed Britain had “liaison officers who are based in Saudi Arabia.”

“We still hold to the firm view that we are not a party to the conflict. Clearly, we are supportive of Saudi Arabia, which has been a long-standing ally,” Field told Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, who had raised an urgent question about the issue.

Several ministers have told Members of Parliament repeatedly in written answers and in evidence to Committees that Britain is “not a party to the conflict”, Thornberry said. “For the past three years, that phrase has been used time and again by Ministers to explain that it is impossible to assess alleged individual violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen because we are not a party to the conflict.”

Last month marked the fourth anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in war-torn Yemen. Within months there were admissions of schools and hospitals being targeted that were claimed to be used for weapon storage sites but according to the then United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, such bombings constituted a trail of war crimes.

Apart from the already known British support for the Saudi air force and supplying billions in arms to the kingdom, Thornberry questioned why the UK engaged in actual gun battles when it was the “long-standing position of the Government that there is no military solution to this conflict.”

There was also the “especially disturbing allegation in the Mail on Sunday report that our forces are providing support to locally recruited, Saudi-funded militia and that many of the fighters  – up to 40 per cent, it was alleged – are children as young as 13 years old,” she further added.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said in January 2016, that his country had nothing to hide. A host of foreign officials have been posted to the Yemen command and control centre, he said, have been able to scrutinise its air campaign, and were satisfied by its safeguards.

“We have British officials and American officials and officials from other countries in our command and control centre. They know what the target list is, and they have a sense of what it is that we are doing and what we are not doing,” he told journalists in London after meeting British ministers and the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

The UK Ministry of Defence confirmed that British forces were in the operation room to provide training and advice “on best practice targeting techniques to help ensure continued compliance with international humanitarian law”, under a long-standing arrangement, but said they did not have an operational role.

“UK military personnel are not directly involved in Saudi-led Coalition operations,” a spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, twelve children and 10 women from three families were killed by air strikes in Yemen’s northern province of Hajjah on March 10, the United Nations said.

Up to 30 people were reported wounded, including 14 children, several of whom “require possible evacuation to survive,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.

In one grave, 10 members of Ahdaab family were buried in sacks: Noor,10, Fatima,13, Amani, 4, Marwah,11, Hazim, 4, Eiad,1, Somaiah,35, Samirah, 32, Mona, 34, Taqwa, 55.

This month, the United Nations again called for investigations into the continuing air raids by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition after a school was hit in a residential area in Sana’a, that were reported to have killed at least 11 civilians, including seven children and left more than 100 people wounded.

The World Health Organisation estimates nearly 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened to prevent the defeat of the Government.

Human rights groups say the real death toll is several times higher.

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