SANAA, Yemen (3rd UPDATE) – The Saudi-led coalition fighting rebels in Yemen said Sunday, October 9, it will investigate an air raid that killed more than 140 people, after Washington announced it was reviewing support for the alliance.
The Iran-backed Huthi rebels blamed the coalition for the Saturday (October 8) attack, one of the deadliest since it launched a military campaign against the Shiite insurgents in March 2015.
The attack could further sour US-Saudi ties already strained over the coalition’s military intervention which is suspected of causing almost half of the more than 4,000 civilian deaths in Yemen’s conflict.
It also risks embarrassing Washington, which has vehemently criticized Moscow over the heavy civilian death toll from Russian air raids in support of Syria’s regime in Aleppo city.
After initially denying any responsibility, the coalition said it was ready to launch a probe into the “regrettable and painful” strike, which the UN said also wounded more than 525 people.
“The coalition will immediately investigate this case along with… experts from the United States who participated in previous investigations,” it said.
“The coalition is also willing to provide the investigation team with any data and information related to its military operations today, at the incident’s location and the surrounding areas.”
UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded a “prompt and impartial” probe.
“Those responsible for the attack must be brought to justice,” he said.
The Huthis accused the coalition of a “massacre,” saying its planes hit a gathering of hundreds mourning the death of the father of rebel interior minister Jalal al-Rowaishan.
They did not say if Rowaishan was in the building at the time, nor did they indicate if other senior figures were attending the funeral.
But Sanaa mayor Abdel Qader Hilal was among those killed, said the rebels’ Almasirah television.
“The ceiling of the hall fell on us following one strike,” said Radhwan al-Fizai, a survivor currently in hospital. “A second missile followed and I lost consciousness.”
Rebel-allied former president Ali Abdullah Saleh called for escalating the fight against “backward” Saudi Arabia along its borders “to take revenge.”
Protest against Saudi, US
Thousands of angry protesters took to the streets of Sanaa on Sunday, chanting slogans against Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Riyadh’s key ally Washington said it had launched an “immediate review” of support to the Arab coalition.
“We are deeply disturbed by reports of today’s air strike on a funeral hall in Yemen, which, if confirmed, would continue the troubling series of attacks striking Yemeni civilians,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.
“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.
“US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque,” Price said, and called for an “immediate” ceasefire.
In August, the US military announced it had slashed its number of intelligence advisers supporting the coalition following concerns over civilian casualties.
The Saudi-led coalition has come under increasing international scrutiny over civilian deaths.
In September 2015, a suspected coalition strike killed at least 131 civilians at a wedding near the Red Sea city of Mokha.
The Saudi-led alliance denied any involvement.
And in March this year, Saudi-led air raids on a market killed at least 119 people, including 106 civilians, of which 24 were children, in the northern rebel-held province of Hajja.
In an initial statement to AFP, the Saudi-led coalition said it had no operations at the location and “other causes” for the incident must be considered.
The coalition “has in the past avoided such gatherings and (they) have never been a subject of targeting,” it said.
Longer term consequences
In its latest statement, however, the coalition expressed its “deepest condolences and support to the families of the victims of hostilities since the coup takeover of power in Yemen during 2014.”
The coalition – which also comprises Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates – has faced repeated criticism from rights groups over civilian casualties in its campaign in Yemen.
The Huthis swept into Sanaa in September 2014 and advanced across much of Yemen, forcing the internationally recognized government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.
Saturday’s strike destroys the chances of reaching a truce and reigniting the peace process, said April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at International Crisis Group.
“It almost certainly kills any hope of an immediate ceasefire and it will have longer term consequences for the potential to develop any sustainable peace plan,” she said.
The conflict has killed more than 6,700 people – almost two-thirds of them civilians – and displaced at least 3 million since the coalition launched military operations, according to the United Nations. – Rappler.com