Saudi-led coalition sets up body to probe actions in Yemen

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The Saudi-led coalition striking Shiite rebels in Yemen announced Monday that it is setting up an independent committee to probe the force's actions in the deeply impoverished country amid mounting criticism over its military operations there.

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The kingdom and its allies, which include the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Arab nations, have been conducting airstrikes in Yemen on the side of the internationally recognized government since last March.

The strikes and accompanying coalition ground operations are designed to roll back gains by Shiite Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who have taken over the capital and much of the north in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country.

A document by a United Nations expert panel leaked last week urged the UN Security Council to consider creating an international commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses by all sides in the conflict. It cited concerns about more than 100 coalition sorties linked to alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

Health facilities operated by Doctors Without Borders have also been struck in recent months, drawing strong condemnation from the aid group, also known by the French acronym MSF.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, the coalition's spokesman, was quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency early Monday as saying the new committee is tasked with examining coalition military activities in civilian areas.

A separate statement from the Saudi Embassy in Washington said the committee will assess the coalition's rules of engagement involving civilians and will offer "conclusions and recommendations to better respect international and humanitarian law."

"The coalition has and will continue to take all precautions to protect civilians, medical ?staff, humanitarian organizations and journalists in Yemen," the embassy said.

The bloc also reaffirmed its "full co-operation" with the United Nations and the Red Cross, and has set up a hotline with MSF to protect the group's facilities and staff in Yemen, the embassy added on its official Twitter account.

Teresa Sancristobal, MSF's emergency unit co-ordinator, was unable to provide details on the hotline but said the coalition's inquiry plans are "a step in the right direction."

"We need to understand what happened and why for the safety of our teams and our patients in Yemen, and in all conflicts," she said in an email.

MSF operations in Yemen have come under attack four times in less than three months, including a strike on an ambulance that killed its driver in Saada governorate on Jan. 21, she said.

The document from the UN panel seen by The Associated Press last week found coalition airstrikes in civilian areas "have been conducted in a widespread and systematic manner." It also documented allegations of fleeing civilians being followed and fired on by helicopters on three separate occasions.

The UN says more than 5,800 people have been killed and over 80 per cent of Yemen's population desperately needs food, water and other assistance.


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