By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament called on the European Union to impose an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, saying Britain, France and other EU governments should no longer sell weapons to a country accused of targeting civilians in Yemen.
EU lawmakers, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of an embargo, said Britain had licensed more than $3 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since Saudi-led forces began military operations in Yemen in March last year.
Nearly 6,000 people have been killed since the coalition entered the conflict, almost half of them civilians, according to the United Nations, and the European Parliament said it was acting on humanitarian grounds.
"This is about Yemen. The human rights violations have reached a level that means Europe is obliged to act and to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia," said Richard Howitt, a British center-left lawmaker who led efforts to hold the vote.
The parliament's vote is not legally binding but lawmakers hope it will pressure EU governments to agree to an embargo, following a petition of 750,000 European citizens calling for the suspension of weapon sales.
Fellow British lawmaker Alyn Smith, a Scottish Nationalist who grew up in Saudi Arabia, has also written to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini calling for the embargo.
However, any EU embargo would go against U.S. President Barack Obama's policy of bolstering U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia after Washington brokered a deal with regional rival Iran last year to curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Britain and France are the main European suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia, while Germany also licensed arms exports of almost $200 million to the Sunni kingdom in the first six months of 2015, the latest economy ministry data available.
EU lawmakers warned the vote may prompt retaliation from Saudi Arabia, whose envoy to the European Union held several meetings with EU lawmakers and tried to dissuade the parliament.
"The Saudis said to me they may cut off relations. I hope those are just words," Howitt said, adding that the quickest way to avoid an arms embargo was to end the conflict in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Abdulrahman Al Ahmed, defended the kingdom's actions in a letter to EU lawmakers on Sunday, saying that "the larger ramifications of our not taking action in Yemen would have had devastating geopolitical consequences for the kingdom, Europe and the broader West as well."
Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of nine Arab countries that began a military campaign in March 2015 to prevent Houthi rebels, whom it sees as a proxy for Iran, from taking complete control of Yemen.
The Houthis and their allies, forces loyal to former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, accuse the coalition of launching a war of aggression.
Yemen has become one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. The U.N. says famine looms as over half the population, or 14.4 million people, face hunger. Clinics and hospitals have been repeatedly hit.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Katharine Houreld)