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U.S. Bombs Used In Airstrike On Yemeni Market, Rights Group Says


A human rights group is accusing the United States of complicity in a war crime. Human Rights Watch makes that charge about U.S. help for its ally, Saudi Arabia.


The Saudis have conducted airstrikes as part of their intervention in the civil war in Yemen. Last month, what appear to be aerial bombs fell in a Yemeni town. They struck a market. And that incident forms the centerpiece of the Human Rights Watch allegations.

INSKEEP: Sarah Leah Whitson is a senior official of Human Rights Watch and regular visitor to Yemen.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: So on March 15, a Saudi coalition carried out airstrikes on a market in a village of Mastaba, which we know killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children.

INSKEEP: This is rural Yemen. It's a small town. There's a market - a bazaar - where people gather. And that's where this bomb landed.

WHITSON: Right - they didn't carry out one strike, but they carried out two strikes, so some of the first responders to the strike were themselves also hit. We do believe that those two strikes may also have killed about 10 Houthi fighters. But given the very, very high death toll and the target itself, this was clearly an indiscriminate strike

INSKEEP: Who's we? Do you have people in that village who went and looked?

WHITSON: Yes, we just had a team in Mastaba last week

INSKEEP: What did they do?

WHITSON: Well, they physically examined the site, and that's where we found the remnants of these U.S. bombs - U.S. laser satellite systems. We spoke to witnesses. We spoke to victims. We went and talked to morgue officials to gather the death lists. And that's why we were able to find that there were, for example, 10 Houthi fighters along with the almost 100 civilian victims.

INSKEEP: OK, you said U.S.-made weapons. What did your team find, exactly?

WHITSON: So what we found were remnants at the market itself of a GBU-31 satellite-guided bomb.

INSKEEP: What is that?

WHITSON: That is a bomb which has 2,000-pound bomb attached to it - an MK-84 - with a JDAM satellite guidance kit.

INSKEEP: It's a smart bomb.

WHITSON: It's a smart bomb. It has guidance. So it's extremely unlikely that this was done in error, hit the wrong thing, but that this - it was the intended target.

INSKEEP: OK, and I'm just trying to think this through from the Saudi perspective. We can imagine that they were aiming at something they believed to be a legitimate target and hit it. We can imagine that they aimed at a legitimate target but didn't know where it was and sent the bomb to the wrong place. Or could we imagine something worse than that?

WHITSON: Well, I think the most obvious calculation was they saw 10 -perhaps more - Houthi fighters assembled at a marketplace and thought that they would therefore strike them. But that doesn't make it a legitimate target just because there are Houthi fighters there. The laws of war require that you be able to distinguish and discriminate. And so if you have a military leader in a football stadium surrounded by civilians, you can't drop a 2,000-pound bomb in that stadium with the hopes that you're going to hit that military leader.

INSKEEP: Are most or all of the bombs that Saudi Arabia is dropping on Yemen American-made?

WHITSON: I couldn't say if they were most or all. I can say that many of the bombs that Saudi's been dropping in Yemen are American-made. We also know that they're dropping American-made cluster munitions, which are, of course, not only deadly in the immediate vicinity and time of their use, but remain death devices well after a war ends, for years to come.

INSKEEP: Is this simply because the United States has been an ally of Saudi Arabia for many years and surely has supplied the Saudis with an awful lot of munitions over the decades?

WHITSON: Well, there's two levels. The one very, very apparent level is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are using American weapons to carry out a disastrous war in Yemen that has indiscriminately targeted civilian sites. The less well-appreciated part is the role that the United States is playing as a participant - providing the Saudis with what it says is targeting assistance, in addition to providing refueling and other technical, technological support for the weapons. And what we have repeatedly asked the U.S. government and the Defense Department to tell us is, what are they targeting? Did they target Sanaa University? Did they target the MSF clinic? What are they targeting? And they haven't told us.

INSKEEP: To the best of your knowledge, how is the United States providing targeting assistance?

WHITSON: Well, we know from the little they've said that the American advisers are sitting in the Riyadh control center from where targeting lists are reviewed and decided on. How they're involved in the Riyadh command center, what targeting assistance they're providing, we don't know. We have heard that they have generated a no-target list saying these are things we should not target, but we've also heard that advice has not been followed. And, you know, as I'm sure you know, the United States has sort of a long record of picking targets in Yemen and attacking them with drone strikes over the past decade, really. We just don't know what the extent of their involvement is in this past year.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the U.S. explanations for being involved in Yemen, which I can summarize as helping a vital ally, Saudi Arabia, that's feeling insecure right now; pushing back against Iran, which is believed to have some kind of involvement with one of the sides in this civil war; and also trying to get some kind of a handle on a country that has been a terrorist haven?

WHITSON: Well, I would say those are really bad reasons to kill 3,000 civilians in Yemen, and a bad story to help tell the Yemeni people. And the reality is is that President Obama repeatedly makes the links between authoritarian governments, abusive governments, and violent extremism, and connects the dots. Surely there needs to be some dots connected between mass indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen that have killed thousands of civilians and the violent extremism that it's, you know, nearly certain to produce. And if you walk around the streets of Sanaa today, you will see graffiti and posters that say U.S. kills Yemenis.

INSKEEP: Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, thanks very much.

WHITSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: By the way, we reached out to the Saudi Embassy in Washington to ask about the Human Rights Watch report, but didn't hear back. A Pentagon official told us the United States does not decide when and where to strike in Yemen. That is up to the Saudis and their allies, we're told. The U.S. does acknowledge it passes the Saudis information and says, we are confident that it's good information which the Saudis are encouraged to use with, quote, "precision and discretion." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.