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UK arms sales to Saudi threaten its Yemen aid efforts - lawmakers

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 May 2016 07:33 GMT

A woman cries near her house after it was destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

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Britain urged to back calls for an independent investigation into alleged attacks on civilians in Yemen conflict

By Emma Batha

LONDON, May 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's efforts to tackle Yemen's massive humanitarian crisis risk being seriously undermined by its multi-billion dollar arms sales to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, a group of UK lawmakers said on Wednesday.

They urged Britain to consider suspending weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, which has been accused by rights groups and aid agencies of repeatedly bombing civilian targets in Yemen.

Britain also should back calls for an urgent independent investigation into alleged violations of humanitarian law by both sides in the conflict, the International Development Committee said in a report.

A Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign in March last year to prevent the Iran-allied Houthi movement from taking complete control of Yemen after it seized much of the north.

The conflict has killed more than 6,000 people, half of them civilians, and unleashed a major humanitarian crisis in the poorest country in the Middle East.

A United Nations panel said this year that the coalition had targeted civilians and may have committed crimes against humanity.

"The growing evidence of indiscriminate bombing by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen ... raises serious questions over the government's continued licensing of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia," the committee said.

It added that UK military sales to Saudi Arabia had increased significantly since the conflict in Yemen started, amounting to nearly £3 billion between April and December 2015 - just under 40 percent of total UK arms sales in that period.

Aid agencies told the inquiry there was a "paradox at the heart of the UK government's approach to Yemen".

Britain, one of the biggest donors to Yemen, has earmarked £85 million in humanitarian aid for this year and is providing medical supplies, water, food and emergency shelters.

"The government should listen to the many concerns being expressed ... that the humanitarian crisis that (it) is working to address in Yemen may be being exacerbated by a flow of British arms into Saudi Arabia," committee chairman Stephen Twigg said.

Julien Harneis, head of UNICEF in Yemen, told the committee's inquiry that the way the bombing was being conducted was "almost guaranteed to lead to civilian deaths".

"These are huge bombs dropped into a city of millions of people," he said, adding they were also using a "double tap" strategy.

"They will drop a bomb. Ambulance and health workers will rush to assist the victims, and then they will drop another bomb two hours later and blow up the ambulance crew."

The Saudi government has launched an internal inquiry into the alleged violations.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the committee that Saudi Arabia should be allowed to complete its inquiry before any independent investigation is considered.

He added that there was no reason to stop arms exports but that the situation was being kept under review.

The report also warned of a "lost generation" as it detailed the war's high toll on children.

Harneis said nearly 2,000 children had been killed or injured in the last year, hundreds had been recruited to fight and an estimated 10,000 children under age 5 would die from indirect consequences of the conflict such as disease.

One health expert said there were fears that polio, which was eradicated in Yemen a decade ago, could reappear because of a lack of vaccines.

(Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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