EXCLUSIVE: Double tap attack on Yemen funeral violated humanitarian law - UN panel

Samuel Oakford

Freelance journalist based in New York, and regular IRIN contributor

A UN panel of experts has accused the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of a deliberate “double tap” airstrike on a funeral gathering in Yemen earlier this month. In a report to the UN Security Council, obtained by IRIN, the panel says that the coalition’s second strike in particular “violated its obligations” under international law and it “did not take effective precautionary measures to minimize harm to civilians, including the first responders” on the scene.

The strike in the capital of Sana’a killed over 100 people, including the city’s mayor, several high-level officials affiliated with Houthi rebels and their ally former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as many civilians.

Hundreds were wounded, and an international uproar followed. Within hours, the White House announced an “immediate review” of its support for the coalition. Saudi Arabia confirmed the attack and has offered compensation for victims, but its own investigation laid blame on faulty information from a Yemeni source.

Saudi Arabia and a 10-state coalition began military action in Yemen in late March 2015 in an effort to oust Houthi rebels from power. Since then the UN has recorded more than 4,100 civilian deaths in Yemen, the majority from Saudi-led airstrikes, but the country insists it has robust targeting practices and investigates allegations of wrongdoing. IRIN's attempts to seek comment from Saudi Arabia were unsuccessful by publication time.

In a statement released on 15 October, the Joint Incidents Assessments Team (JIAT), set up by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, blamed an affiliate of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government-in-exile, who wrongly supplied information describing a gathering of armed Houthi leaders, and “insisted that the location be targeted immediately as a legitimate military target.”

The panel of experts investigation offers greater detail of the incident than the JIAT’s account.

The VIP guests were of significance to the direction of the conflict, the report states: “Had the attack killed or seriously injured more of the individuals listed… then the Houthi-Saleh alliance would have been dealt a devastating political and military blow.”

Signed by the panel’s coordinator, Ahmed Himmiche, and sent on 17 October to the chair of a Security Council Yemen sanctions committee, it includes a list of 25 top officials present at the funeral, held for the father of Saleh’s interior minister Jalal Al-Ruwaysahn. At the top of the list is Saleh himself, who threw his lot in with Houthi rebels after being unseated by popular protests in 2011.

According to the panel’s report, Saleh and his son left prior to the attack.

The two attacks, at roughly 3:20 pm and 3:30 pm local time, “coincided with a time when the funeral was expected to receive the highest number of mourners,” reported the panel. Video of one strike emerged on social media shortly after the incident, and clearly showed the hall already smoking as further ordinance fell. The sound of a jet could be heard.

The panel’s letter referenced local custom that meant “political and military leaders, and civilians, could not avoid attending.”

The community hall where the gathering took place fits between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Hundreds of civilians, including children, were present when it was attacked.

Given the prominence of the family for whom the funeral was held, the size of the hall and high public attendance common at such wakes, the panel concluded that the Saudi-led coalition “could reasonably be expected to conclude” there would be “a significantly high number of civilians, including children, at the venue and consequently… any air strike would result in a high number of civilian casualties.”

Focus on second strike

The panel makes reference to relevant provisions of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), especially with regard to the second strike: “IHL prohibits attacks against hors de combat, the wounded, and medical personnel and units.”

“The second air strike, which occurred three to eight minutes after the first air strike almost certainly resulted in more casualties to the already wounded and first responders," it reads, adding that "the timing between the explosions indicates the deliberate use of the ‘double tap’ tactic, the consequences of which are that individuals responding to the first explosion are caught by the second.”

"The Panel thus finds, in respect of the second air strike, that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition violated its obligations"

“The Panel thus finds, in respect of the second air strike, that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition violated its obligations in respect of persons hors de combat and the wounded in this ‘double tap’ attack, and did not take effective precautionary measures to minimize harm to civilians, including the first responders, in the second strike,” says the letter.

The panel refers to its conclusions that two previous double-tap strikes carried out by the Saudi coalition, including the March bombing of a market that killed at least 97 civilians were violations of IHL. The panel is mandated since 2014 to advise the Security Council on its sanctions measures related to Yemen, and two annual reports have been made public.

Its role includes monitoring any parties that are “planning, directing, or committing acts that violate applicable international human rights law or international humanitarian law, or acts that constitute human rights abuses, in Yemen.”

After the funeral bombing, diplomatic efforts led to approve a 72-hour cessation of hostilities. Begining at a stroke before midnight on Wednesday, the ceasefire appeared to be holding early on Thursday.

(TOP PHOTO: Extract from 17 October letter from Panel of Experts to UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on Yemen)

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