Pompeo discusses Iran with Gulf allies amid escalating crisis

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz at Al Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2019. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

By Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Iran and maritime security with rich Gulf Arab allies during a trip to the region on Monday after President Donald Trump called off a military strike to retaliate for Tehran’s downing of a U.S. drone.

Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and had lunch with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before proceeding to the United Arab Emirates for talks with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince.

The discussions covered protection for ships in the Gulf, after attacks on tankers in recent weeks which Washington has blamed on Iran: “Freedom of navigation is paramount,” Pompeo tweeted from the Saudi city of Jeddah.

He thanked King Salman for meeting on “such short notice”, an apparent sign of how quickly the United States has mobilized diplomatic efforts as the confrontation escalates.

The Saudi media ministry said Pompeo and Prince Mohammed reiterated that the “two countries stand side by side in confronting the hostile Iranian activities and in combating terrorism.”

Relations between longtime foes Iran and the United States have deteriorated since Trump withdrew Washington a year ago from a 2015 accord that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

Tensions have flared following the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of the drone last week, and repeated attacks on Saudi airports and oil installations by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.

Iran said on Monday that U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.

Washington and Riyadh have publicly accused Tehran of being behind the tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied involvement. The United States has protected the waterway for decades with its naval Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.

Trump said on Monday that other countries, including China and Japan, should protect their own ships there.

There was no immediate indication that Pompeo had raised with Saudi leaders the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

A U.N. report last week called for the crown prince and other senior officials to be investigated given credible evidence against them.

The Trump administration is pressing the Saudis to show progress toward holding to account those behind the killing.

Trump told NBC on Sunday he did not discuss the murder in a recent phone call with the crown prince. Asked if the FBI should investigate, he responded: “I think it’s been heavily investigated.”

The murder tarnished the crown prince’s international standing. The CIA and some Western countries believe he ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Maha El Dahan and Sylvia Westall in Dubai; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

Iranian lawmaker blames ‘Israeli mischief’ for tanker attacks off UAE coast

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

GENEVA (Reuters) – The tanker attacks off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were “Israeli mischief,” an Iranian parliamentary spokesman said on Tuesday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“The events that took place in the Emirates were Israeli mischief,” Behrouz Nemati said, without providing any details on what role Israel may have played in the attacks.

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Louise Heavens)

Saudi Arabia says its oil tankers among those hit by attack off UAE coast

General view of the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Rania El Gamal and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

The UAE had not given the nationalities or other details about the ownership of the four vessels. Riyadh has identified two of them as Saudi and a Norwegian company said it owned another. Reuters images showed the fourth vessel was the UAE-flagged A. Michel, a fuel bunker barge.

Thome Ship Management said its Norwegian-registered oil products tanker MT Andrew Victory was “struck by an unknown object”. Footage seen by Reuters showed a hole in the hull at the waterline with the metal torn open inwards.

A Reuters witness said divers were inspecting the damaged ships on Monday.

Iran, which is embroiled in an escalating war of words with the United States over sanctions and the U.S. military’s presence in the region, moved to distance itself on Monday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the incidents “worrisome and dreadful” and asked for an investigation into the matter.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said, “saboteurs from a third country” could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

Highlighting international concerns, Britain’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risks of “a conflict happening by accident” with an unintended escalation between Washington and Tehran over an unraveling nuclear deal.

Washington withdrew last year from a 2015 pact between Iran and global powers aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear plans. Since then, the United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to reduce its oil exports to zero.

UAE LAUNCHES PROBE

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to major markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

Oil prices rose on Monday, with Brent crude futures at $72.08 a barrel by 1416 GMT, up $2.07.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said that one of the two Saudi vessels was attacked in the UAE economic zone on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude from Ras Tanura port for delivery to state-owned Aramco’s customers in the United States.

The attack did not cause any casualties or an oil spill but caused significant damage to the vessels’ structures, he said in a statement.

Trading and shipping sources identified the Saudi vessels as very large crude carrier (VLCC) tanker Amjad and crude tanker Al Marzoqah, both owned by Saudi shipping firm Bahri, which did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The UAE Foreign Ministry had said there were no casualties and the Fujairah port operations were normal. An investigation was launched in coordination with international authorities, it said, calling on global powers to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime safety and security.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi stock markets suffered their biggest single-day declines in years on Monday, with Dubai falling 3.97%. Saudi shares lost 3.55%.

OIL SECURITY

Sunni Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed U.S. sanctions against Shi’ite Iran, a fellow OPEC producer but regional foe. After the United States ended all sanctions waivers that had allowed some nations to continue importing Iranian crude, Washington said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would help compensate for any shortage in oil supply.

Falih said the attack aimed to undermine maritime freedom and the security of oil supplies to consumers worldwide.

“The international community has a joint responsibility to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets and the danger they pose to the global economy,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the incident “has a negative impact on maritime transportation security” and asked regional countries to be “vigilant against destabilizing plots of foreign agents”, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said in an advisory on Sunday that incidents off Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, had not been confirmed and urged caution.

The Maritime Administration had said earlier this month that U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways could be targeted by Iran in one of the threats to U.S. interests posed by Tehran.

Washington said it was sending a U.S. aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East due to what it said were Iranian threats, while Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat. Iran has said it would not allow its oil exports to be halted.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul and Robin Emmott in London, Saeed Azhar in Dubai and Oslo newsroom; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Edmund Blair and Mark Potter)

Taliban dismiss Afghanistan’s peace talks offer

By Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban have rejected Kabul’s offer of talks next month in Saudi Arabia where the militants, fighting to restore strict Islamic law in Afghanistan, will meet U.S. officials to further peace efforts, a Taliban leader said on Sunday.

Representatives from the Taliban, the United States and regional countries met this month in the United Arab Emirates for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban have refused to hold formal talks with the Western-backed Afghan government.

“We will meet the U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia in January next year and we will start our talks that remained incomplete in Abu Dhabi,” a member of the Taliban’s decision-making Leadership Council told Reuters. “However, we have made it clear to all the stakeholders that we will not talk to the Afghan government.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said the leaders of the group would not talk to the Afghan government.

The militants have insisted on first reaching an agreement with the United States, which the group sees as the main force in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified after Taliban representatives started meeting U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this year. Officials from the warring sides have met at least three times to discuss the withdrawal of international forces and a ceasefire in 2019.

But the United States has insisted that any final settlement must be led by the Afghans.

According to data from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission published in November, the government of President Ashraf Ghani has control or influence over 65 percent of the population but only 55.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, less than at any time since 2001. The Taliban say they control 70 percent of the country.

A close aide to Ghani said the government would keep trying to establish a direct line of diplomatic communication with the Taliban.

“Talks should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” the aide said on condition of anonymity. “It is important that the Taliban acknowledge this fact.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has announced a pullout of American troops from Syria, a decision that prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, and there have been reports that he is considering a partial pullout from Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain in Kabul, Editing by Nick Macfie)

Calls for end to Yemen war offer little hope for hungry children

Malnourished Ferial Elias, 2, gestures as she is being weighed at a malnutrition treatment ward at al-Thawra hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

TAIZ, Yemen (Reuters) – Lying on a dust-covered bed in a hospital ward in the Yemen city of Taiz, 10-year-old Ghazi Mohammed barely has enough energy to watch doctors and nurses examine his emaciated body.

The boy weighs 8.5 kg (18 lb), less than a third of the average weight of a child his age. He fled hunger and poverty in his mountain village last year to find only more suffering in Yemen’s third largest city Taiz.

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

“This shows that the humanitarian aid that comes to Yemen does not reach people who really need it. Distribution remains random,” said his doctor, Amen al-Asli.

Western powers who have for three years provided arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen are now pressing for an end to a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

The West toughened its stance after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policy, at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

His death sparked a global outcry and exposed Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and aggressive foreign policy, including its role in the war in Yemen, which has been criticized by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers.

But calls for an end to the fighting have come far too late for millions of Yemeni civilians, including children, who face acute malnutrition and hunger in a complex, multi-sided war.

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“They need a complete care, here in the hospital and later at home. Of course, it depends on the parents’ financial condition as malnutrition can hit the whole family,” said Youssef al-Salawi, another doctor.

In Taiz, children fighting for their lives in hospitals are traumatized by daily artillery fire, rockets, and anti-aircraft guns as Saudi-backed government forces battle the Iran-aligned Houthis along pulverized streets.

The United Nations says out of 29 million Yemenis, 22 million need some form of humanitarian assistance, almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million are severely hungry.

“We do hope that talk about getting the peace process back on track, that gives us hope, but it is very imperative for the people of Yemen that this conflict stops as soon as possible,” said Stephen Anderson, the World Food Program’s (WFP) country director in Yemen.

OFFENSIVE ON PORT

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the warring parties together before the end of the year.

After seizing the southern port of Aden in 2015, the coalition has made little progress. While it has air supremacy, the Houthis have proved better at guerrilla warfare.

The Houthis still control Yemen’s most populated areas, including the capital Sanaa and the port city of Hodeidah.

The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has renewed its offensive on Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as Washington and London called for a ceasefire.

Aid groups fear an attack on Hodeidah port would disrupt its operations and endanger more civilians as it remains the main source of food imports as well as much-needed humanitarian aid.

Street fighting and air strikes resumed late on Tuesday in Hodeidah despite a lull in battles as U.N. officials visited the Red Sea city to assess food security.

A resident told Reuters calm descended on Hodeidah on Wednesday after heavy clashes and air strikes rocked the city. “It is very surprising,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Writing By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Michael Georgy, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, and Angus MacSwan)

Saudi-led coalition masses troops near Yemen’s Hodeidah as pressure mounts to end war

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold up a poster of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a protest against the deteriorating economy in Taiz, Yemen, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub/File Photo

By Mohammed Ghobari

ADEN (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has massed thousands of troops near Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, local military sources said on Wednesday, in a move to pressure Iranian-aligned Houthi insurgents to return to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.

The United States and Britain have called for an end to the 3-1/2-year war that has driven impoverished Yemen to the verge of famine, raising pressure on Saudi Arabia as it faces a global outcry over the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The military alliance of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has deployed around 30,000 forces south of Houthi-held Hodeidah and near its eastern entrance, pro-coalition Yemeni military sources told Reuters.

“Thousands of Yemeni soldiers trained by the coalition have been sent to the outskirts of Hodeidah in addition to modern weaponry including armored vehicles and tanks…in preparation for a big operation in coming days,” said one source.

Residents told Reuters that the Houthis had also deployed forces in the center of Hodeidah city, at the port and in southern neighborhoods in anticipation of an onslaught.

The coalition and the Houthis have not commented on the military movements.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen is trying to salvage peace talks that collapsed in September, raising the risk of a renewed assault on the Red Sea city, the country’s main port and a lifeline for millions of Yemenis reliant on humanitarian aid.

Envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday for a cessation of hostilities ahead of U.N.-led negotiations scheduled to begin next month.

Britain also endorsed the U.S. call to end the fighting, which has killed more than 10,000 people, according to available U.N. figures, and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

“We remain committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month. Dialogue remains the only path to reach an inclusive agreement,” Griffiths said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

“I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations, and confidence-building measures,” he said, listing support for the central bank and a prisoner swap.

DIRE SITUATION

The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in Yemen’s war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government.

But after seizing the southern port city of Aden and some towns on the western coast, the alliance has made little gains in a costly war to unseat the Houthis, who hold the most populous parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.

The United Nations aid chief told the Security Council earlier this month that half the population of Yemen – some 14 million people – could soon be on the brink of famine.

Aid groups warned of deteriorating conditions in the Arabian Peninsula country.

“The recent increase in military activity in…Hodeidah threatens the security of our life-saving operations,” World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Wednesday.

He said the WFP has enough cereals to assist 6.4 million of the neediest Yemenis for 2-1/2 months, with the aim to reach 8 million.

Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Alzawqari said that an estimated 3,200 families – some 22,000-28,000 people – were in dire need of basic necessities including food, water and shelter in Hodeidah, many having fled fighting in rural areas.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly said that taking control of Hodeidah would force the Houthi movement to the negotiating table by cutting off its main supply line.

But a previous offensive on the heavily-defended city in June failed to accomplish any gains and the coalition halted the fighting to give U.N. peace talks in Geneva a chance.

The talks were abandoned when the Houthi delegation failed to show up. The Houthis accused the coalition of blocking the group’s team from traveling, while the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of trying to sabotage the negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran warns U.S., Israel of revenge after parade attack

A general view shows an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Iran, in this September 22, 2018 photo by ISNA. The photo is watermarked from source. ISNA/Iranian Students' News Agency/Social Media/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. MANDATORY CREDIT.

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that the attackers who killed 25 people at a military parade were paid by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and that Iran would “severely punish” those behind the bloodshed.

The deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also accused the United States and Israeli of involvement in the attack and he said they should expect a devastating response from Tehran.

In the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, thousands packed the streets to mourn the victims of Saturday’s assault, many chanting “Death to Israel and America”. Twelve members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were among the 25 dead.

The coffins, wrapped in the flag of the Islamic Republic, were carried by the mourners. Many held pictures of a four-year old boy killed in the incident, one of the worst such attacks against Iran’s the most powerful military force.

Four assailants fired on a viewing stand in Ahvaz where Iranian officials had gathered to watch an annual parade marking the start of Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq.

“Based on reports, this cowardly act was done by people who the Americans come to help when they are trapped in Syria and Iraq, and are paid by Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Khamenei said on his official website.

Guards Brigadier General Hossein Salami, in a speech broadcast on state TV, said: “You have seen our revenge before. You will see that our response will be crushing and devastating and you will regret what you have done,”

Tasnim new agency also quoted Salami as saying that the “horrific crime” exposed the dark side of an alliance that the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel had created to counter Iranian influence in the region.

The secretary of Iran’s National Security Council said Tehran needed to talk to its neighbors to avoid tensions.

“It’s essential to be fully aware and increase our constructive dialogues to neutralize the plots of enemies who want to create suspicion and disagreement among regional countries,” Ali Shamkhani said.

He also criticized the United States, saying U.S. sanctions against Iran were illegal and that President Donald Trump was using them as a tool for “personal revenge”.

ANTAGONIZE

The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and Washington, rejected Iran’s allegations alluding to its involvement in the violence.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked by a Fox News interviewer if the United States played any role in the attack, said: “When you have a security incident at home, blaming others is an enormous mistake.”

The loss of innocent lives was tragic, Pompeo added. There has been no reaction yet from Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Accusations against Gulf countries will almost certainly antagonize Iran’s regional foe Saudi Arabia. The oil super-powers are waging a war for influence across the Middle East, backing opposite sides in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

It is, however, highly unlikely the Guards will strike any of its foes directly and risk sparking a regional conflict.

Analyst said the violence has led to a boost in domestic support for the Guards which they could use to silence their critics, who include pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani engineered Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that ushered in a cautious detente with Washington before tensions flared anew with Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the accord and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.

Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, said a network of suspects had already been arrested in connection with the attack, the judiciary’s news agency Mizan reported. He did not elaborate..

Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian ethnic Arab opposition movement which seeks a separate state in oil-rich Khuzestan province, and Islamic State have both claimed responsibility.

The Guard Corps was set up after the 1979 Islamic revolution to protect the Shi’ite clerical ruling system and revolutionary values. It answers to Ayatollah Khamenei and has an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Yemen buries children killed by air strike, Riyadh insists raid ‘legitimate’

Boys demonstrate outside the offices of the United Nations in Sanaa, Yemen to denounce last weeks air strike that killed dozens including children in the northwestern province of Saada, August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SAADA, Yemen (Reuters) – Thousands of mourners on Monday buried dozens of children killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in northern Yemen, one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the three-year-old war.

At least 40 children were killed in Thursday’s raid which hit the bus as it drove through a market of Dahyan, a town in Saada, the armed Houthi group which controls the province said.

Amid outrage from international human rights groups and U.N. officials, Riyadh continued to defend the raid as a “legitimate military action” intended to hit Houthi leaders, a day after it authorized a coalition investigation of the strike.

Wooden coffins, most with a picture of a child, were taken by cars and carried by pallbearers to a graveyard from a square where prayers were held earlier. “Death to America, death to Israel,” the crowd chanted, echoing the Houthis’ slogan.

The shrouded bodies were removed from the coffins and placed in a row of unmarked graves that had been dug on Friday.

“My son went to the market to run house errands and then the enemy air strike happened and he was hit by shrapnel and died,” said Fares al-Razhi, mourning his 14-year-old son.

“For my son, I will take revenge on Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed,” he said, referring to leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Gulf Arab states are leading the alliance of Sunni Muslim countries that intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government that was expelled from the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014.

The coalition said on Friday it would investigate the strike after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack and called for an independent probe.

But on Saturday, state news agency SPA said Riyadh’s mission to the world body delivered a message to Guterres reiterating that the raid was “legitimate” and targeted Houthi leaders “responsible for recruiting and training young children”.

“War can’t be a clean operation, unfortunately,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told reporters in Dubai when asked about the Saada attack. “But I will say all parties need to accept their part in what they are doing today.”

Mourners attend the funeral of people, mainly children, killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in northern Yemen, in Saada, Yemen August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

Mourners attend the funeral of people, mainly children, killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in northern Yemen, in Saada, Yemen August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

TALKS PLANNED

The coalition initially said after the attack that the strike had targeted missile launchers that were used by the Houthis to attack the southern Saudi province of Jizan.

The Houthis’ health minister Taha Mutawakil said last week that the number of casualties stood at 51 killed including 40 children, and at least 79 people wounded, of which 56 were children. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported the same toll on Friday, citing authorities in Saada.

The Houthi-run al-Masirah TV on Monday quoted a health official as saying another child had died from his wounds, raising the toll to 52.

The head of the Houthis’ supreme revolutionary committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, attended the funeral and blamed the United States for “this ugly massacre of Yemeni children”.

The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the alliance, and human rights groups have criticized them over coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools and markets.

A U.S. military spokeswoman said U.S. forces were not involved in Thursday’s air strike. The U.S. State Department urged the alliance to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation”.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday he has dispatched a three-star general to Riyadh to “look into what happened”.

The coalition says it does not intentionally target civilians and has set up a committee to probe alleged mass casualty air strikes, which has mostly cleared it of any blame.

The Houthis have also been criticized by rights groups.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen has been shuttling between the warring parties ahead of holding consultations in Geneva on Sept. 6 to try to end the conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the impoverished Arab country to the verge of starvation, according to the United Nations.

The UAE’s Gargash said he hoped the Geneva talks signaled the start of a process that would lead to a political solution to the conflict — which is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and regional foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen, Maha El Dahan in Dubai and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

U.S. returns thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts to Iraq

A man photographs artifacts on display, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hosts an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq, at the Iraqi ambassador's residence in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – About 3,800 artifacts, including Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2100 B.C., that were illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc were returned to Iraqi officials in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the artifacts laid out on a table.

“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities it received and pay $3 million to settle civil proceedings brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Shipping labels on the packages the artifacts arrived in described them as “tile samples,” federal prosecutors said.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, according to court documents. It agreed that if it receives any of the remaining antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government, according to court documents.

Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. Privately held Hobby Lobby has said the seized artifacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

The forfeited packages included tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. primarily, known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

Justice Department officials have said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was “fraught with red flags,” saying the company had ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

When the company disclosed its settlement with the Justice Department in July, Green said Hobby Lobby should have “carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

A representative of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

Saudi-led air strike kills 12 civilians, including seven children: medics

Morgue workers sort plastic bags containing bodies of an airstrike victims in Hodeida, Yemen April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed 12 civilians including seven children in the coastal city of Hodeidah on Monday, medics and a witness said.

Medics and a civilian who saw the wreckage said the air strike had destroyed a house in the al-Hali district, where displaced civilians from other provinces were settled.

The 12 victims were all from the same family, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters: “We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are – using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Hodeidah is home to the impoverished country’s biggest port from where most of the humanitarian aid reaches millions of civilians on the brink of famine. The operation of port, controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, was not affected by the air strike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country – already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula – to the verge of famine.

Last week the Houthis launched a flurry of missiles which Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted over Riyadh. Debris from the missiles fell on a home, killing one person.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Monday said the Houthi attack had violated the laws of war by indiscriminately targeting populated areas.

“The Houthis should immediately stop their indiscriminate missile attacks on populated areas of Saudi Arabia,” said Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“But just as unlawful coalition airstrikes don’t justify the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks, the Saudis can’t use Houthi rockets to justify impeding life-saving goods for Yemen’s civilian population.”

When the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh last November, the coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports. The United Nations said that blockade raised the danger of mass starvation, and it was partially lifted.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)