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Human rights group asks Saudi Arabia, U.S. to protect civilians in Yemen

An international human rights group on Monday expressed concern that some of the airstrikes conducted by a U.S-backed, Saudi-led coalition in Yemen appeared to violate the laws of war and urged the United States and Saudi Arabia to take steps to minimize harm to civilians.

In letters to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels that began on March 26 has killed at least 311 civilians.

The letter to Carter warned that the United States could be considered a party to the conflict and “jointly responsible for laws-of-war violations” in Yemen because it was providing intelligence for airstrikes and refueling Saudi bombers.

“Even if the U.S. does not consider itself a party to the conflict in Yemen, its support for the coalition will invariably link the U.S. to the coalition’s actions,” the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, wrote in the letter, which was dated April 10. “It is therefore important that the U.S. use its influence with Saudi Arabia and other coalition members to call upon them to abide by their obligations under the laws of war.”

In his letter to the Saudi king, Roth singled out an air attack March 30 on what he called a “well known displaced persons’ camp in Mazraq in northern Yemen,” which he said killed at least 29 civilians and wounded 41 others, including 14 children.

“Human Rights Watch found no military target that would legally justify such a high civilian toll,” he wrote.

Roth also told the king that Saudi bombing against Houthi forces in Sanaa, the Yemen capital, killed as many as 34 civilians in “the first days of the war.” He said Houthi forces also bore blame because they “deployed anti-aircraft weapons among civilians.”

The Pentagon said that it was aware of the letter but did not offer immediate comment.

The high civilian death toll has been a repeated issue for aid officials and human rights groups since the Saudis began bombing Yemen on March 26. Last week, the United Nations’ top official for internally displaced people accused Saudi Arabia of violating international law when it bombed the Mazraq camp. The World Health Organization said that at least 74 children were among the dead throughout Yemen.

On Monday, the U.N.’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that it had chronicled the deaths of 37 civilians, including 10 children, in bombing last week, and that airstrikes had hit three hospitals in the same period.

The U.N. agency said that in “the last 24 hours” airstrikes had hit residential areas in eight Yemeni cities, including the capital, causing an “unspecified number of casualties.” It also said that land-line and cellular phone service had been knocked out in Aden, Yemen’s second largest city, which is being besieged by Houthi rebels, and that food was scare. “Wheat flour was not available in the local market and all bakeries have closed down,” the agency said.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration said that it had organized its first successful charter flight to evacuate 141 foreigners, including 10 Americans, from Sanaa. A second flight scheduled for Monday was postponed, officials said, because of coalition military operations. Joel Millman, an organization spokesman, said the flight was expected to depart Tuesday.

The International Organization for Migration said it has been inundated with calls from family members of people believed to be stranded in Yemen and has identified about 16,000 people who need international travel assistance, of whom some 5,000 are believed to be ready to travel immediately.

The United States continued to assert that it would not mount a rescue operation for the 3,000 or so American citizens believed in Yemen. In comments Monday to reporters at the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he was “not aware of any U.S. government-sponsored plans to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Yemen at this point.” The U.S. pulled the last American military personnel from Yemen last month.

State Department officials said last week that Yemen was too dangerous to risk U.S. military lives to rescue Americans. In explaining the Obama administration’s reluctance to mount an evacuation, Earnest called it “relevant . . . that for years now the State Department has warned Americans about the dangers of traveling to Yemen.”

Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.

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