Saudis Face Mounting Pressure Over Civilian Deaths in Yemen Conflict
The New York Times
CAIRO — Saudi Arabia and its allies faced mounting international pressure on Tuesday to halt a bombing campaign in Yemen the day after airstrikes killed dozens of people at a village wedding on the Red Sea coast.
The attack occurred Monday morning in the village of Wahija, south of the city of Mokha, and appeared to be one of the deadliest involving civilians since the military campaign began in March. Witnesses said Monday that at least 70 people had been killed in tents set up for the wedding. On Tuesday, two local medical officials said as many as 81 people had died.
The attack on the wedding, along with a string of recent airstrikes that have led to large numbers of civilian deaths, has fueled accusations that the Saudi-led military coalition is conducting an increasingly reckless offensive as it tries to defeat the Houthis, a rebel movement from the north of Yemen. The strikes have prompted a series of unusually angry statements from normally cautious United Nations officials who have singled out the coalition for causing the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen’s six-month war.
There have also been signs that the Obama administration could face more questions over its military support of the air campaign. On Tuesday, Representative Ted W. Lieu, Democrat of California, sent the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a letter citing reports of civilian deaths and requesting that the United States “cease aiding coalition airstrikes in Yemen until the coalition demonstrates that they will institute proper safeguards to prevent civilian deaths.”
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition denied on Monday that coalition warplanes were responsible for the wedding bombing, telling Reuters that there had been no coalition operations in the area for days.
On Tuesday, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, speaking to reporters in New York, said the Yemeni authorities would investigate the allegations. He added that the coalition sought to “minimize casualties” when possible.
Mr. Jubeir said the Saudi-led coalition was often blamed for damage done by the Houthis. “We need to be careful about facts and fiction,” he said.
Frustration with the coalition burst into public after months of private grumbling by diplomats over the airstrikes but also over a continuing blockade that has caused shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
In Geneva on Tuesday, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a news briefing that the coalition was “indubitably responsible for the naval blockade of Yemen’s main seaports.” The blockade, he added, is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis that has left four out of five Yemenis requiring assistance, and 1.5 million people internally displaced.
Yet most of the diplomatic irritation over the last few days has been fueled by the airstrikes. On Monday, after calling for an end to the bombing in his address to the General Assembly, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, released a statement condemning the wedding party bombing. He warned that “any intentional attack against civilians is considered a serious violation of humanitarian law.”Mr. Ban called on all parties involved in the Yemeni conflict “from inside and outside the country to immediately cease all military activities.
Mr. Colville said that civilians were being killed by “an increasing number of airstrikes targeting bridges and highways.”
A recent report by the high commissioner’s office found that almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths “had allegedly been caused by coalition airstrikes, which were also responsible for almost two-thirds of damaged or destroyed civilian public buildings,” Mr. Colville said.
The United Nations has been trying to investigate human rights violations by all sides in the Yemen war. But Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have tried to block any international inquiry.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly dismissed accusations that airstrikes are killing civilians and has instead blamed the Houthis for the deaths.
Mr. Colville released new casualty estimates for the war on Tuesday, saying at least 2,355 civilians were killed from March 27 to Thursday. A previous estimate, through the end of June, had put the civilian toll at 1,527.
The Obama administration, which counts Saudi Arabia as one of its closest Arab allies and backs the ousted Yemeni government, has provided intelligence to the war effort as well as logistical support, like refueling, to coalition warplanes.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the coming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Lieu requested that the Defense Department clarify whether American officials knew how many civilians had died as a result of coalition airstrikes, whether civilians were being targeted and what types of assistance the United States was providing to the coalition.
In an interview, Mr. Lieu, who served in the Air Force as a judge advocate general, said it was unclear from news reports whether the coalition was “grossly negligent or intentionally targeting civilians.”
“There is clearly no military value in a wedding party,” he added.