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More civilians have been killed or injured by explosive weapons in Yemen this year than in any other country in the world, including Syria or Iraq, according to a devastating report published this week.
Yemen’s war may have dropped out of the headlines, but it rages on as deadly as ever. Friday marked six months since a Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes to push back the advance of Yemen’s Houthi rebels across the country. Amid an ongoing stalemate, coalition airstrikes have intensified in recent weeks.
The report from the UK-based charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA tracked deaths and injuries from explosive violence in Yemen since the beginning of the year -- including weapons like aircraft bombs, tank shells, mortars and improvised explosive devices.
It recorded 5,239 deaths and injuries from explosive violence as of July 31, of whom 4,486 were civilians. Only Syria, where AOAV reported 4,205 civilian deaths and injuries from explosive violence this year, and Iraq, with 3,327 casualties, came anywhere close to the toll in Yemen.
The high proportion of civilian casualties -- 86 percent -- underlines persistent warnings from humanitarian and human rights groups that ordinary Yemenis are bearing the brunt of the war.
The report's figures are just a portion of the total death toll in Yemen. While the report tracked reports of explosive weapons casualties since January, the United Nations gave much higher overall casualty figures provided by Yemeni health facilities. In all, 4,855 people have been reported killed and almost 25,000 injured in Yemen since March, according to the U.N. More than 450 of those were children. The U.N. warns the actual number could be much higher as hospitals are closed or rendered inaccessible by the war, and people who die before making it to the hospital are not reported.
After the Houthis, a mainly Shiite group from Yemen’s north, extended their control over the country last year, neighboring Saudi Arabia warned of an Iranian-backed coup in the country and formed a coalition of Arab allies aiming to reinstall the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Since the coalition launched airstrikes on March 25, a plethora of different groups have stepped into the fray: loyalists of former president Ali Abdulleh Saleh supporting the Houthis and southern separatists and other local militia fighting against them. Militants loyal to the Yemen-based branches of Al Qaeda and to the Islamic State have both tried to exploit the chaos.
Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the war. Fighting and a coalition-imposed blockade have now left nearly half of Yemen’s 26 million people without access to basic food supplies.
“An already vulnerable population is now faced with a country reduced to rubble by falling bombs and rockets,” Robert Perkins, AOAV senior weapons researcher and the author of the report, said in a press statement. “Their homes destroyed, their families torn apart, it will take a many years to recover from the last few terrible months in Yemen.”
Human rights groups have accused both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels of indiscriminately bombing or shelling civilians areas and urged an international inquiry into violations of international law.
The Netherlands led an effort this week to launch such an investigation, asking the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday to send a fact-finding mission to Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has been lobbying hard to fend off an independent international inquiry and stepped up a PR campaign about its role in Yemen’s war ahead of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York next week, Foreign Policy reported. The Gulf kingdom and its allies submitted an alternative resolution to the Human Rights Council this week condemning abuses committed by the Houthis and calling for the Saudi-backed government to lead an inquiry.
The U.S., which has provided intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led bombing campaign, has not said which resolution it will support. Washington has expressed concern about the mounting civilian casualties but declined to rebuke its ally at a sensitive time amid the recent nuclear deal with Saudi archrival Iran.
U.S. officials at the U.N. are “deeply skeptical about what the Saudis are doing in Yemen… but will not piss them off” because of concerns it could further strain relations, a senior U.N.-based official told Foreign Policy.
Human rights group Amnesty International on Friday urged world leaders to support an independent inquiry.
"With no end to this deadly conflict in sight and a spiraling humanitarian crisis, civilian suffering is at an all-time high," James Lynch, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, said in the statement. “In the six months since the Saudi Arabia-led coalition began their campaign in Yemen, all sides have displayed a callous disregard for civilian life.”