While the Obama administration deals with the fallout from bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, the Saudis have a similar situation on their hands in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi insurgents.
The organization, also known by the acronym MSF after its French name Medicins Sans Frontieres, claims that five airstrikes from the Saudi coalition struck its clinic in the Haydan district in Yemen’s northern province of Saada. A spokeswoman told CNN the facility serves 200,000 people in the area and has treated 3,400 casualties since May.
According to the CNN report, officials from the Yemeni Health Ministry confirmed the bombing, while claiming that “most of the victims treated there were ordinary civilians and that the facility treats very few families or relatives of Houthi loyalists.”
The head of the MSF project in Yemen, Hassan Bourcenine, told the New York Times that “the hospital was hit by several airstrikes while roughly a dozen patients and staff members were inside. The operating theater and maternity ward were struck. The staff evacuated the hospital between strikes, and one staff member was slightly injured in the escape.”
CNN’s report identified the injured staffer as Ali Askar, an employee of the Yemeni Health Ministry. The facility was said to be almost completely destroyed by the bombing, with only the X-ray room and medical staff room remaining partially intact.
“This attack is another illustration of a complete disregard for civilians in Yemen, where bombings have become a daily routine,” Boucenine declared.
The bombing was also denounced by Amnesty International, whose director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, said it appears to have been “an unlawful attack causing harm to civilians and civilian objects.” Luther said the consecutive bombing runs showed the medical facility was deliberately targeted, which could amount to a war crime.
Doctors Without Borders also alluded to war crimes in its statement: “The bombing of civilians and hospitals is a violation of international humanitarian law, and MSF is demanding that coalition forces explain the circumstances around the attack.”
While U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the airstrikes, called for an investigation of the incident, and demanded an immediate halt to all combat operations in Yemen, the Obama administration’s reaction has been subdued thus far.
The New York Times relates a statement from the U.S. Central Command saying that senior American officials “remain in close and regular contact with the Saudi government on a wide range of issues related to Yemen,” and those officials have asked the Saudis to “investigate all credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from coalition-led airstrikes and, if confirmed, to address the factors that led to them.”
As for the Saudis, they initially denied the bombing of the clinic happened at all, but Vice News reports the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations has now admitted a “mistake” was made, adding that Doctors Without Borders was at least partially responsible for that mistake because it provided inaccurate coordinates for the Haydan clinic.
“The coalition forces tried to avoid the location that was given to them by Medecins Sans Frontieres, and they were targeting a field that was used by the Houthis for training and ammunition gathering,” Saudi ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi told Vice News. “[The hospital] was hit by mistake as a result of Medicins Sans Frontieres providing wrong coordinates of their location.”
Mouallimi said his government was investigating the incident to “examine the exact causes and the impact of the strike” and would “take all measures necessary to avoid such situations in the future.”
Doctors Without Borders has insisted it coordinated with the Saudi military and accurately described the location of the hospital to them. Vice News notes the organization has also complained about offenses committed by the Houthis, most recently accusing them of blocking medical shipments to the beseiged city of Taiz.