Deadly Hospital Bombing Highlights an Escalating War in YemenMark Mazzetti
(New York Times) – It was a frenetic Monday afternoon at Abs Hospital in northern Yemen, with doctors and nurses busily shuttling among the patients and a maternity ward filled with 25 women expecting to give birth.
The bomb from the Saudi jet dropped into the middle of the hospital compound, a facility run by Doctors Without Borders, landing between the emergency room and a triage area for new patients. Nineteen people were killed, dozens were injured, and a humanitarian group that for decades has braved war zones across the globe decided it had had enough.
Doctors Without Borders announced in the days after the Aug. 15 strike that it was pulling out of six medical facilities in northern Yemen, the latest turn in a war that has further devastated one of the Arab world’s poorest countries and has bogged down a Saudi military ill-prepared for the conflict.
For the Obama administration, it was another public reminder of the spiraling violence of a war in which it has played a direct role. American officials have publicly condemned the hospital bombing — and the bombing of a school two days earlier — but the Pentagon has given steady support to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, with targeting intelligence and fuel for the Saudi planes involved in the air campaign.
Anger over the Saudi-led campaign and the United States role in the war is growing in Congress. On Wednesday, it prompted a group of lawmakers to circulate a letter that asks President Obama to withdraw his request for Congressional approval for a $1.15 billion sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, until Congress can have a broader debate about American military support for the Saudis.
The past three weeks have seen an escalation in the conflict in Yemen — and in reports of civilian casualties — after peace talks among the warring sides broke down and Saudi Arabia resumed a blistering air assault in areas surrounding Yemen’s capital, Sana. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday with the aim of brokering a new peace deal, although there is little optimism about a lasting cease-fire in the near future.
It is now 17 months into a military campaign that began after Shiite rebels, known as the Houthis, overran the Yemeni capital, forced the government into exile and began positioning missile batteries close to Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have portrayed the Houthis as puppets of Iran, a charge that American officials view with deep skepticism, even though they say Tehran has provided the militia with some arms and money.
The Abs Hospital was the fourth health facility supported by Doctors Without Border to be hit during the war. Teresa Sancristóval, the group’s emergency program coordinator, said that Doctors Without Borders had given the GPS coordinates of its facilities to the Saudi military, and that its representatives had traveled to the Saudi kingdom twice to protest. But the botched airstrikes continue.
“Words are not enough when 19 people are killed,” Ms. Sancristóval said, adding that the group can no longer accept assurances from the government in Riyadh that their airstrikes will become more precise.
“If you don’t know what you’re hitting, then don’t try to hit it,” she said.
Ms. Sancristóval said Doctors Without Borders had pulled approximately 550 personnel from its facilities in northern Yemen, although the group would continue to provide medical supplies and funding to the hospitals.
When the group announced its withdrawal last week, the Saudi coalition issued a statement saying it was in “urgent discussions” to broker the medical organization’s return to Yemen. Ms. Sancristóval said she was unaware of any substantive discussions.
This month, a Saudi-led investigation into eight separate episodes in Yemen that had killed hundreds of civilians — including previous strikes that hit Doctors Without Borders facilities — largely absolved the coalition of the deaths.
The investigation concluded that faulty intelligence was to blame in only one of the eight episodes, and said that aid groups, such as Doctors Without Borders, should not station medical facilities near Houthi encampments.
But a spokesman for the investigation, Mansour bin Ahmed Mansour, said in an interview that investigators did not travel to Yemen and had no personnel on the ground there to collect evidence. “The circumstances do not allow the team to go on the ground,” he said.
Speaking of an episode late last year, when a coalition airstrike bombed a Doctors Without Borders clinic near the Yemeni city of Taiz, Mr. Mansour said that the coalition had hit a “legitimate military target,” and that the aid group “should keep these tents away from the locations where there are militias.”
According to United States Central Command, American military tankers have flown nearly 1,200 sorties since the war began and refueled more than 5,600 coalition aircraft — support that is drawing increasing protest from Congress.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Obama administration’s support for the campaign in Yemen had caused anger to be directed at the United States from inside the war-racked country.
“We try to maintain some distance from this, but that doesn’t sell inside Yemen,” he said. “I’m petrified about the long-term prospects of a Yemeni population that is radicalized against the United States.”
The Saudi-led bombing campaign resumed this month after a monthslong pause for the unsuccessful attempt to draft a peace agreement. On Aug. 7, more than a dozen civilians were killed in an airstrike that hit a small marketplace near the village of Al Madeed, approximately 35 miles northeast of Sana.
Sada al-Othari, a witness who owns a drugstore in the village, said that two of his customers were killed in the bombing and that there was no military target in the area.
He gave a graphic account of victims burned beyond recognition and panicked locals who were reluctant to provide help, fearing a second airstrike would hit the rescuers — a tactic that the coalition has used during the campaign.
On Aug. 13 an airstrike in Hayden District hit a religious school, killing 10 students and wounding dozens. A representative of Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in Yemen decried the bombing. Wounded children were brought to another medical facility run by Doctors Without Borders.
The day after that attack, a Saudi military spokesman denied that the airstrike had hit a school, saying the target was a Houthi training camp. The spokesman, Gen. Ahmed Asiri, said in a statement to Agence France-Presse that the dead children were just evidence that the Houthis were recruiting children as guards and fighters.
“We would have hoped,” General Asiri said, that Doctors Without Borders “would take measures to stop the recruitment of children to fight in wars instead of crying over them in the media.”