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Troubling Questions Are Being Asked About the US Role in Yemen

A new report has named the United States as a party to the conflict in Yemen for the first time, and said that Washington is obliged to carry out its own investigations into civilian deaths.

by Samuel Oakford
Nov 27 2015, 11:55am

Photo by Yahya Arhab/EPA

The Saudi-led coalition targeting Houthi rebels in Yemen has failed to investigate hundreds of reported civilian casualties in the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday in a damning summary of attacks perpetrated during Riyadh's US-backed campaign.

The group's findings include details of what it said were 10 apparently unlawful coalition strikes that led to the deaths of at least 309 non-combatants, and wounded an additional 414 civilians. In each of the incidents, investigators concluded that there was "either no evident military target or that the attack failed to distinguish civilians from military objectives."

According to the UN, more than 2,600 civilians have been killed in Yemen since the start of the coalition's intervention, which aims to dislodge the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Shia rebels and Saleh's forces have committed gross human rights violations, indiscriminately shelling residential areas and leaving a wake of landmines behind them as they retreat. 

In Friday's report, HRW cited the Houthis specifically for endangering civilians, but focused primarily on the coalition's transgressions. For months, the UN has said the majority of civilian deaths in the conflict resulted from Saudi-led airstrikes.

Notably, HRW for the first time named the United States as a party to the conflict in Yemen, and said that Washington was obliged to carry out its own investigations into civilian casualties. Since the start of hostilities in late March, the US has provided coalition forces with vital logistical and intelligence support, including what it terms "targeting assistance." As of October, US planes flying over Saudi Arabia had refueled coalition jets more than 2,100 times — even as it publicly distanced itself from potential war crimes committed with those very planes.

Among the attacks outlined in the report was the May 12 aerial assault of Zabid, a rebel-controlled town some 37 miles from the Red Sea port of Hodeida. A series of at least five bombs hit the town on that day. According to investigators, three hit a building located in the midst of the town's Shagia market, which housed a restaurant and candy store. At least 60 civilians, including 13 women and eight children, were killed, according to the report.

Related: More Than 800 Women and Children Have Died in Yemen, and No One Has Food

"I saw at least 50 limbs ripped apart from the fragments of the explosion," Abdullah Amin al-Dhabi, a local freelance journalist who arrived at the scene told HRW. "I also saw other bodies of people I could recognize in front of the Shagia restaurant. There I saw my cousin, next to the bodies of three other people I knew: two of them were kids under the age of 12, another was a woman who used to sell bread by the door of the restaurant."

Some locals surmised that the strike intended to hit a nearby factory that was producing Houthi military uniforms. Others said that Houthi fighters would routinely done in the market, or come to purchase the stimulant khat.

"The presence of a small number of Houthi military personnel at the market would not make the entire market a legitimate target for a bombing attack," concluded HRW.

On July 24, airstrikes hit residential compounds at a steam power plant in Mokha, a port city along the Red Sea. HRW said the incident left at least 65 civilians dead, among them 13 women and 10 children. While investigators were careful to note that power plants which supply militaries may be targeted under the laws of wars, they added that the long-term consequences of such destruction could be "enormous" for civilians, "making its destruction unlawfully disproportionate." However, the plant itself was never hit by coalition jets — only the residential compounds surrounding it, housing engineers and their families. 

On July 25, the Saudi owned outlet Al-Arabiya TV reported coalition forces had targeted an air defense base in the city on the day prior. HRW identified a location fitting that description — but which had been out of use for months — around half a mile southeast of the steam plant, raising concern that the airstrikes had completely missed even the general area of their intended target. The Al-Arabiya report "was swiftly taken down."

Around two weeks earlier, on July 12, an airstrike hit a residential area in the Yemeni capital Sanaa known as Sawan. According to HRW, the attack "killed 23 people, all from the same family, including seven women and 14 children, from the ages of two months to 16 years." Shortly before that incident, a medical facility, located adjacent to the "Military Engineers' Compound," some 500 meters from the residential strike, was hit with bombs.

HRW said it was "unaware of any investigations by Saudi Arabia, other coalition members, or the US into these or other allegedly unlawful strikes, or of any compensation for victims or their families."

Related: Civilian Deaths in Yemen Won't Stop a Billion-Dollar US Arms Deal With Saudi Arabia

On November 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that US Air Forces Central Command chief Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. indicated the US maintained a "small detachment of personnel in the Saudi Arabian center planning airstrikes to help coordinate activities." HRW said that Brown's statement to the press, coupled with Washington's other forms of assistance "may make US forces jointly responsible for laws-of-war violations by coalition forces." The group said that for this reason the US was obligated under international law to investigate "unlawful attacks in which it took part."

In recent months, the Obama administration has taken to pains to nudge itself away from the growing toll of coalition bombings. On October 2, following a deadly airstrike that hit a wedding in the southwest of the Yemen, the White House's National Security Council said it was "deeply concerned" about civilian casualties, but added that the US "has no role in targeting decisions made by the coalition in Yemen."

Experts and human rights officials said the statement didn't directly address Washington's heavy involvement in coalition attacks, nor the more than $90 billion in weaponry that the US has sold the Saudis since 2010. In light of earlier information that the US was maintaining a "Joint Combined Planning Cell" in Saudi Arabia staffed with American personnel, VICE News made multiple attempts to clarify what steps military planners had implemented to reduce civilian casualties.

In response, CENTCOM officials insist this is their goal in Yemen, but provided no further details. Asked about specific incidents, and whether the US was involved in the targeting process for operations that killed civilians, defense officials cited operational security.

VICE News also requested, from both CENTCOM and the Pentagon, details of any US investigations into such casualties. In both cases no answer was provided. CENTCOM has specifically directed inquiries on civilian casualties to the Saudis, who refuse to respond to requests, both from VICE News and HRW researchers. In one rare case, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the UN admitted to VICE News that coalition jets hit a Doctors Without Borders-affiliated hospital on October 26, only to walk back that version of events the following day.

Related: Battered By Civil War and Historic Cyclones, Yemen Now Faces Swarms of Locusts

"The key demand that we've been making in addition to investigations is transparency, the US government has to be clear on what its role is," said Belkis Wille, Yemen researcher at HRW. "Until then there is really no way of knowing what strikes they've been involved in. They may well be involved in all of these strikes."

In its report, HRW also called on the UN's Human Rights Council to establish an independent inquiry into crimes committed in Yemen. Such a move was blocked at the council by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and the US remained mostly quiet.

"Given that the war is now in its eighth month and not a single investigation has been carried out by the coalition, and given that the US is a party to this conflict and a country that claims to care about the protection of civilian lives in times of war, it needs to step up and show Yemeni victims that it cares," said Wille.

Last week, the US State Department signed off on a $1.29 billion weapons deal for the Saudis, made up in large part by air to surface bombs meant to replenish stockpiles spent in Yemen.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford