Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are using hospitals as military command posts, thereby deliberately putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk, according to a new report into Yemen's long-running civil war.
Hostilities in the Yemeni conflict resumed at the weekend following the collapse of peace talks in Kuwait. The talks came after Houthi fighters, who are backed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards, rejected a U.N.-sponsored peace plan and announced the establishment of a 10-member governing body to run the country.
Within hours of the peace talks ending, the Saudi-led military coalition, which is backed by both the U.S. and Britain, had resumed air strikes against Houthi rebel positions in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a. Initial reports said that at least 21 people, the majority of them civilians, had been killed, including a number of workers in a potato chip factory in Sana'a. In addition, the international airport at Sana'a was shut down by the airstrikes after Saudi coalition officials notified airlines that incoming flights would be barred for 72 hours.
It is the first time in five months that Sana'a has been bombed by warplanes from the coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan and other Middle East countries.
Human rights groups, which have repeatedly raised concerns about the high number of civilian casualties, will be particularly concerned by the resumption of hostilities. The U.S.-backed Saudi coalition is seeking to restore the democratically-elected government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Sana'a in February by Houthi rebels. The Houthis are being supported by elite units from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). More than 6,000 people have been killed in the civil war, including around 3,000 civilians.
Both sides in the conflict have been accused of causing unnecessary civilian casualties, with the Saudis, who have suffered significant casualties of their own, being singled out for particular censure over the way they have conducted coalition air strikes.
But an investigation conducted by coalition officials into claims that Saudi warplanes have directly targeted civilians found that the air strikes had been justified, because the Iranian-backed rebels had been using civilian institutions, such as hospitals, as command posts to launch attacks against coalition forces and their allies.
A report issued earlier this week by the coalition's Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) refuted earlier claims by the French-based charity, Doctors Without Borders, that the Saudi coalition had deliberately caused civilian deaths by bombing Haiden Hospital in Yemen's Saada province. Instead, investigators found that at the time of the attack, Houthi rebels were occupying the hospital, making it a legitimate target.
In all, JIAT investigated eight high-profile bombings where the UN or humanitarian organisations have accused the coalition of killing civilians or bombing hospitals and humanitarian structures. In each case, it concluded that all "safety procedures implemented by coalition forces adhered to international humanitarian law."
The revelation that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are deliberately using civilian institutions for their war effort inevitably will draw comparisons with the tactics used by other radical Islamist groups such Hamas, which regularly uses institutions such as hospitals to launch attacks against Israel.
"It is clear that the tactics used by the Houthis, where they are using places like hospitals for their military campaign, has contributed significantly to the heavy civilian death toll," said a senior Western official. "While the West urges the Saudi-led coalition to use all means possible to avoid civilian casualties, we must also be aware of the tactics the Iranian-backed rebels are using as part of a deliberate policy to discredit the coalition war effort."
Con Coughlin is the defence and foreign affairs editor of London's Daily Telegraph.