'We don't target civilians' in Yemen: Saudi-led coalition

Ian Timberlake

Riyadh (AFP) - The Saudi-led coalition's combat planning chief on Saturday defended the air war in Yemen against widespread international concern about high numbers of civilian casualties.

In an exclusive interview with AFP, the Royal Saudi Air Force brigadier general -- who cannot be identified under the military's security restrictions -- accused rights groups and other critics of "looking through one eye only".

"They are receiving all the information from the adversary," he said of Yemen's Huthi rebels supported by forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"We are sticking to the rules, the international rules and Geneva Convention, first, and law of conflict," said the brigadier.

"We don't deviate from those standards," the brigadier told AFP during the first visit by a foreign journalist to the coalition's planning and operations centre at King Salman Air Base in Riyadh.

"We don't target civilians," he said, nearly 10 months into the Arab coalition's war in support of Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

The United Nations reports more than 5,700 people killed in Yemen since March.

"Most of the victims of the Huthi shelling and Saudi strikes are actually civilians," said Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

In late September and early October, the coalition twice denied it had bombed weddings in Yemen after dozens of civilians were killed.

"It is propaganda," the brigadier said.

Late last month, the French-based charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) accused the coalition of bombing one of its hospitals in the rebel-held Saada area, an incident condemned by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

"The GPS coordinates were regularly transmitted to the coalition," MSF said, but senior coalition intelligence officers denied this to AFP.

The officer in charge of the intelligence cell said, however, that around 4,800 points are on a list not to be targeted, and it is updated daily.

These include medical and UN facilities, historical locations and schools.

"The law of our religion is not to go and strike or kill any innocent people. And this is very important to us," the intelligence officer said.

"First of all we are human, and we don't... target anybody who's not in the conflict," the planning chief said.

- 'They are professional' -

He said targeting is verified many times to ensure that civilians will not be killed.

The joint forces commander sends targets to the intelligence section which makes sure the objective is in line with the rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties, the brigadier said.

Intelligence forwards it to the planning section "so they start to study it again", he said, before it is further reviewed by others.

They assign the right type of weapon to the appropriate aircraft as a further measure to avoid killing or injuring civilians, the brigadier said.

In June, New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had investigated coalition air strikes in Saada city on markets, civilian homes, a school and petrol station that killed dozens of civilians "in apparent violation of the laws of war".

Amnesty International in May said it had gathered eyewitness testimony pointing to "a repeated failure" by the coalition to take adequate precautions against civilian deaths.

The brigadier said that the more than 50 people working around the clock in his planning cell have taken courses in the United States, Britain and France.

"The people here, they are trained very well and they are professional," he said of the uniformed personnel working at computers outside his office.

On another floor is the operations centre, where officers monitor large screens showing surveillance images from Yemen.

The centre is linked directly to the coalition commander.

"We know where our aircraft are now over Yemen and what they are doing," the planning chief said.

Aircrews also must ensure no civilians are in the area before releasing their bombs, which are guided by GPS or laser for accuracy.

On Friday, officers said, a mission to bomb a suspected weapons cache was aborted because it was near a school.

"If we don't target today we can target tomorrow or after tomorrow. We are not in a hurry," the brigadier said, adding that with all the precautions "mistakes should not happen" and so far have not.

The coalition records all its actions and if people have doubts about that, "we have the evidence", the brigadier said.

"There is nothing to hide."