The US said its security cooperation with Saudi Arabia was not a “blank cheque” as Riyadh agreed to mount an investigation into a widely condemned air raid on funeral in Yemen that killed 140 people.
In one of the deadliest attacks of the country’s civil war, which Saudi Arabia entered in March 2015, airstrikes on Saturday hit a funeral hall packed with thousands of mourners in Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sana’a. More than 525 people were wounded.
The Saudi-led coalition has not acknowledged responsibility for the attack, even as it announced an investigation, but is the only force with such air power in the conflict.
The White House issued a statement saying it had begun an “immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The attack has been condemned by the UN, the European Union and the United States.
The issue is embarrassing for the US since it has decried the Russian failure to be more open about its role in the air attack on a UN aid convoy in Syria, and it will face allegations of double standards if it allows the Saudis to delay an inquiry.
The US, like the UK, supplies arms to Saudi Arabia and practical military advice, even though the precise extent of that advice is disputed.
White House national security council spokesman Ned Simon said: “We are deeply disturbed by reports of [the] airstrike on a funeral hall in Yemen, which, if confirmed, would continue the troubling series of attacks striking Yemeni civilians. US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.
“Even as we assist Saudi Arabia regarding the defence of their territorial integrity, we have and will continue to express our serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged. In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with US principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”
The UK foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood also called for the Saudis to urgently investigate. Reuters quoted Saudi officials as denying any strike and insisting its air force has clear instructions to avoid such targets. The Foreign Office has insisted UK arms export licences to Saudi Arabia do not need to be revoked since there was no serious risk of a breach of humanitarian law.
In an unexpected twist, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks even though it is thought the deaths were caused by an air raid, and Isis has no access to aircraft.
The Saudi-led coalition issued a statement saying it was aware of reports about the “regrettable and painful” bombing of the Great Hall in Sana’a. The coalition expressed its deepest condolences and support to the families of the victims of hostilities in Yemen since 2014.
The statement added: “The coalition confirms that its troops have clear instructions not to target populated area and to avoid civilians. The coalition will immediately investigate this case along with Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) in Yemen.”
A call for an independent UN-led investigation into general breaches of humanitarian law in the 18-month conflict were last month fended off by Arab states at the Human Rights Council in favour of a compromise that allows the UN to advise a national inquiry. At least 10,000 people have been killed in the 18 month conflict.
Thousands of Yemenis, many armed, gathered at the UN headquarters in Sana’a on Sunday calling for an international investigation into the air raid. Radios and mosque loudspeakers throughout the city blared mourning verses as demonstrators crowded the streets around the UN headquarters, many waving their rifles in the air.
The dead and wounded from Saturday’s attack include senior military and security officials from the ranks of the Houthi rebels fighting the internationally recognised government of president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as well as their allies – loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Ambulances rushed to the site to ferry the wounded to hospitals. In radio broadcasts, the health ministry summoned off-duty doctors and called on residents to donate blood. Rescuers, meanwhile, sifted through the rubble in search of more casualties but a fire hindered their efforts.
The funeral was for Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the interior minister Galal al-Rawishan, an ally of the Houthi movement and Saleh.
Witnesses and medics said a missile hit the hall in the south of the capital, destroying the building. Pictures showed the inside of the once-ornate hall reduced to a pile of twisted metal and rubble after two huge explosions.
The Houthi-controlled news site sabanews.net said: “Dozens of citizens fell as martyrs or were wounded in this attack by planes of the Saudi-American aggression.”
Saleh on Sunday called for an escalation of attacks against Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
“I call upon all the sons of this nation … to face this aggression with all their strength and you must proceed to the battlefronts,” the former president, who commands troops that have defected and sided with the Houthi rebels, said in a televised speech.
“The defense ministry, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the interior ministry must put in place the necessary measures for battle readiness at the fronts on the border.”
Saudi Arabia intervened in the conflict in March 2015 to support the Yemeni government, which took power after Saleh stepped down in 2012 following Arab Spring protests, against Houthi rebels in control of Sana’a. It has faced repeated accusations that its campaign has breached international humanitarian law and last month the Guardian published data indicating that more than a third of the coalition’s airstrikes had hit civilian sites such as schools, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure.
The Houthi rebels are also accused of human rights violations, including the use of landmines and indiscriminate shelling. Saudi Arabia fears the Houthis are proxies for its regional rival, Iran.
The UN has put the death toll in the war at more than 10,000, many of them civilians. Dozens of emaciated children are also fighting for their lives in Yemen’s hospital wards, as fears grow that the war and a sea blockade are creating famine conditions in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.
More than half of Yemen’s 28 million people are already short of food, the UN has said, and children are particularly badly hit, with hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation.
Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said he was “horrified and extremely concerned” by the attacks and called for a prompt and impartial probe.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.
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