Moral Low Ground


US-Backed Saudi Air Strikes on Yemen Market Kills 119 Civilians

A child killed by a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a market in Hajja province, Yemen on March 15, 2016. (Photo: Mersad News Agency)

A child killed by a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a market in Hajja province, Yemen on March 15, 2016. (Photo: Mersad News Agency)

The top United Nations human rights official has condemned the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen for repeatedly attacking civilian targets and killing large numbers of innocent people—including 119 at a busy village market in Hajja province on Tuesday.

“The carnage caused by two airstrikes on the Al Khamees market, in north-western Yemen on Tuesday was one of the deadliest incidents since the start of the conflict a year ago,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a Friday statement that noted the aerial attacks “had completely destroyed 16 shops in the Al Khamees market, which is the primary shopping area for some 15 surrounding villages” and “had apparently taken place during the afternoon rush hour when the market was particularly crowded.” At least 24 children were among the dead.

“The scene was terrifying,” witness Showei Hamoud told the Associated Press. “Blood and body parts everywhere.” Hamoud added many of the dead were children who worked in the market.

“These awful incidents continue to occur with unacceptable regularity,” Zeid stressed. “In addition, despite public promises to investigate such incidents, we have yet to see progress in any such investigations.”

“We are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the coalition,” he added.

Since the March 2015 start of the Saudi-led campaign to support the contested government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the UN Human Rights Office has recorded nearly 9,000 deaths, including 3,128 civilians killed and 5,778 wounded.

“Looking at the figures, it would seem that the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes,” said Zeid. “They have hit markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories, wedding parties—and hundreds of private residences in villages, towns and cities including the capital Sana’a.”

On February 27, Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombed the Khaleq market in Sana’a’s north-eastern district of Nahem, killing at least 39 innocent civilians.

Zeid also condemned indiscriminate attacks carried out by the Houthis and allied fighters, saying these may also amount to international crimes.

Saudi officials said Tuesday’s deadly strikes were targeting “a militia gathering” in a market where qat, a mild narcotic wildly popular throughout Yemen, is sold. However, the UN human rights staff countered that it “could find no evidence of any armed confrontation or significant military objects in the area at the time of the attack, beyond the presence of a check-point some 250 meters away from the market usually manned by a small group of policemen and Houthis.”

Houthi leaders traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this month for secret talks aimed at ending the fighting along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Those talks led to a prisoner exchange and raised hopes that the two sides might agree to a truce. Following Tuesday’s air strikes, Saudi officials told Agence France-Presse coalition forces “are in the end of the major combat phase,” which “is to be followed by the creation of a stable security situation, then reconstruction.”

In Washington, DC, the Obama administration welcomed the news.

“We have expressed our concerns about the loss of innocent life in Yemen, the violence there that is plaguing that country has caught to many innocent civilians in the crossfire,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “We would welcome and do welcome the statement from coalition spokesperson Saudi General Ahmed al-Assiri who indicated today that major operations in Yemen are coming to an end and that the coalition will work on ‘long-term plans’ to bring stability to the country.”

Despite the administration’s concerns, the United States, along with Britain, has provided Saudi Arabia and the coalition with weapons and intelligence. Canada is also contributing arms, and France has provided logistical support. Critics accuse the Obama administration, which has overseen tens of billions of dollars in US arms sales to Middle Eastern dictatorships including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, of fueling death, destruction and unrest in the region. Some of the recipients of US military aid and arms sales rank among the world’s worst human rights violators. Billions of dollars worth of weaponry has been sold to the United Arab Emirates despite the torture of American citizens there.

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