A Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a Yemeni market killed at least 97 civilians on March 15 in one of the deadliest attacks on innocents since its campaign began a year ago. On Thursday, Human Rights Watch reported that the strike had in fact been carried out with massive American-supplied bombs that weighed 2,000 pounds each.
Investigators from HRW visited the site of the attack in the northwestern village of Mastaba on March 28, where they spoke with witnesses and injured victims collected weapon fragments. They found remnants of a GBU-31 satellite-guided bomb, which combines a 2,000-pound MK-84 bomb with a DAM satellite guidance kit, also of American provenance. The team reviewed footage and photographs taken by British TV journalists two days prior, which it said showed "remnants of an MK-84 bomb paired with a Paveway laser guidance kit."
The two aerial bombs hit the crowded market around noon, according to HRW.
"The first bomb landed directly in front of a complex of shops and a restaurant," wrote investigators. "The second struck beside a covered area near the entrance to the market, killing and wounding people escaping, as well as others trying to help the wounded."
UN investigators compiled the names of 97 civilians that perished in the two bombings; another 10 bodies were burned so badly they could not be identified. One resident lost 16 family members, another 17. Some local witnesses said Houthi rebels were present in the vicinity, and one said that 10 Houthi fighters had been killed. HRW could not confirm those accounts, but said that attacks such as the one on the market clearly violated international law because of their indiscriminate nature.
Belkis Wille, a Yemen researcher at HRW, said that the only Houthi presence when she visited was a small checkpoint manned by two fighters, which was located about a quarter kilometer from the market. Two nearby compounds previously used by Houthi fighters were bombed last summer and were abandoned when the team traveled to Mastaba.
"It's shocking that the coalition is dropping not one but two of these bombs on a crowded market place at noon," said Wille. "Choosing to use 2,000-pound bombs boggles the mind. It really makes you question whether this basic principle of minimizing civilian casualties holds any water with the coalition."
That a Saudi-led attack made use of US weapons is not surprising. Since 2010, Riyadh has purchased more than $100 billion in arms from the US, and Washington has approved orders to replenish Saudi stockpiles during the course of their air campaign in Yemen. But the presence of American bombs at a site of such carnage, and the Saudi-led coalition's decision to employ a particularly destructive explosive in a civilian area — let alone a market — raises further questions about America's support for Riyadh's military campaign.
Since the start of hostilities in late March 2015, the US has provided intelligence and logistical support to Riyadh in addition to continued weapons sales, while also unloading fuel from tankers to coalition jets over Saudi airspace thousands of times.
While the US has distanced itself from so-called "dynamic strikes," in which the coalition launches bombing runs based on real-time information, it continues to assist with pre-planned targeting. That support, American officials say, is part of an effort to minimize civilian casualties. Washington further insists that all final targeting decisions are made by the coalition.
VICE News contacted the US Central Command for a response to Thursday's report, but did not receive a reply by publication.
Asked about the findings at a press conference, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said "we just don't have the clarity right now [about] what type of weapon may or may not have been used."
"I think we're looking into it," he added.
HRW, along with other groups like Amnesty International, have called for an end to arms sales to the Saudi regime. The UN meanwhile has requested an independent, international inquiry into violations in Yemen — a step that was previously blocked by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In earlier reporting, VICE News spoke with multiple American officials about the Saudi-led intervention, which seeks to reinstate Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. One senior defense official said that the Gulf-coordinated operation — in which Gulf countries are fighting on their own rather than participating in a Washington-spearheaded campaign — was "something we've dreamed of." But former US military officials and analysts say the coalition's air campaign would have trouble without American assistance.
According to the UN, more than 3,200 civilians have been killed since the start of the intervention, the majority from coalition airstrikes. A UN-announced cessation of hostilities agreement is meant to take effect on April 10, ahead of peace talks in Kuwait on April 18. Fighting and bombing continues in much of the country, including the besieged city of Taiz.
In Aden, the southern port city where Hadi's government is nominally based, extremist groups including the Islamic State have claimed several high-profile attacks. Al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate has also capitalized on the power vacuum of the last year, seizing Yemen's third largest city, Mukalla.