The British and American governments have vowed to apply increased diplomatic pressure to their ally Saudi Arabia following the bombing of a packed funeral hall in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on Saturday.
The attack, strongly believed to have been carried out by the Saudi-led coalition air force, killed more than 140 people and injured as many as 600 more, in one of the deadliest massacres of the country’s civil war.
The US said in the wake of the bombing that its support for Saudi Arabia on security issues was not a “blank cheque”, while the UK warned its decision to allow controversial arms exports to Riyadh was “under careful and continual review”.
The air strikes sparked a furious reaction in Yemen on Sunday, with thousands of demonstrators – some armed with automatic weapons – marching on the UN headquarters in southern Sana’a, demanding an independent investigation.
Though it controls the only air forces in the region, Saudi Arabia has not officially acknowledged responsibility for the attack, which targeted the funeral of the father of Galal al-Rawishan, the interior minister of the Houthi rebel-led government.
Yemeni officials said the dead and wounded included senior military and security officials from the Houthi ranks, and Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the Houthi spokesman in Sana’a, described the bombing as an act of “genocide” by the Saudi-led coalition.
The Saudi military said in a statement that it would launch an investigation into “reports about the regrettable and painful bombing”, while insisting its troops “have clear instructions not to target populated area and to avoid civilians”. Previous Saudi investigations have blamed Houthi loyalists for gathering near the sites of its attacks.
Britain is among Saudi Arabia’s foremost international allies and, despite ever mounting concerns among relief groups, continues to support its bombing campaign against the Houthis with arms exports and military training.
Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood phoned the Saudi ambassador to London on Sunday afternoon, raising concerns over the bombing and calling for an investigation “take place as a matter of urgency”.
“I am deeply concerned by reports of an air strike hitting a funeral hall in the Yemeni capital Sana’a yesterday,” he said in a statement. “The scenes from the site are shocking.
“There can be no military solution to this conflict. We urge all sides to recommit to political talks and to implement a cessation of hostilities.”
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
On the point of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a Government spokesperson told The Independent the UK “takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously”.
“The key test ... for our continued licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia is whether there is a clear risk that those exports might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” she said. “The situation is kept under careful and continual review.”
The US said it had launched an "immediate review" of its already reduced support for the Saudi-led coalition, saying it was “prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with US principles, values and interests”.
Ned Price, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said: “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.”
Earlier on Sunday, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the bombing and said that “any deliberate attack against civilians is utterly unacceptable”, adding those responsible “must be brought to justice”.
And the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, said in a statement that the relief community in the country was “shocked and outraged” by the air strikes. He condemned the “horrific attack” and reminded all parties “that under international humanitarian law, they are obliged to protect civilians and civilian infrastructures”.
The final death toll for Saturday’s attack remains unclear, such was the chaos at the site of what was once the grand hall of ceremonies on al-Khamseen Street.
Multiple strikes sent hundreds of body parts flying through the hall and into the street outside, with rescuers later collecting them up in sacks. The attack left the building little more than a shell, with most of its walls and roof gone.
“The place has been turned into a lake of blood,” said one rescuer, Murad Tawfiq.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had prepared 300 body bags, while the rebel-controlled Health Ministry gave a lower figure, saying 115 bodies had been counted so far. The casualty toll of more than 140 was given by a UN official, who estimated 525 had been wounded.
It may yet be the deadliest single attack of the Saudi-led campaign, after a July 2015 bombing near a power plant in Mokha that killed at least 120 people.
Saudi Arabia reiterated in its latest statement that its coalition was “supporting the legitimate government in Yemen”, that of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was ousted at the start of 2015 by Shia Houthi rebels loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A recent report found that coalition air strikes were responsible for some 60 per cent of civilian casualties in Yemen’s war, amounting to almost 3,800 deaths since they began in March last year. The UN estimates that the conflict as a whole has seen at least 9,000 people killed and nearly three million people forced to flee their homes, making for one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.Reuse content