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Secretary Of State Kerry Visits Saudi Arabia In Effort To End Yemen War


Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia today trying to end a conflict that Saudi Arabia is fighting but the U.S. is getting blamed for, too. That is the war in Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition has been bombarding Yemen for 18 months now to try to restore a government that was ousted by a rebel group called the Houthis. The Saudis have been getting technical help. And as the civilian death toll mounts, Secretary Kerry is trying to revive peace talks. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As Kerry was huddling with diplomats in the Saudi city of Jeddah, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva was releasing another damning report about the conflict in Yemen. One of the authors, Mohammad Ali Alnsour, says all sides seem to be ignoring humanitarian law, using cluster bombs and landmines and striking civilian targets that should be off-limits.

MOHAMMAD ALI ALNSOUR: Like markets, like wedding ceremonies and hospitals, facilities that really, under the international humanitarian law, have special kinds of protection - legal protection.

KELEMEN: He's calling for an independent, international investigation. The U.N. says about 3,800 civilians have been killed since the Saudis entered the war, and most of the deaths are blamed on Saudi airstrikes. Though the Saudis say they're doing their own investigations, Alnsour says he's seen their work, and it isn't enough.

ALNSOUR: We need to see more transparency in terms of these investigations.

KELEMEN: The U.N. human rights official says the main thing is to ensure that these attacks stop happening. That was echoed by Teresa Sancristoval of Doctors Without Borders, who says four of her organization's medical clinics and one ambulance have been hit in Yemen in the past year and a half. All but one were damaged by Saudi-led airstrikes. The most recent airstrike hit a rural hospital just last week.

TERESA SANCRISTOVAL: We have 19 people dead and 24 injured.

KELEMEN: She says her organization, known by its French acronym MSF, repeatedly gives the Saudis the GPS coordinates of its hospitals and clinics, and Sancristoval says the Saudis rarely follow up with her.

SANCRISTOVAL: We know that there has been an investigation, but it has not been communicated to ourselves, to MSF.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been providing logistical support and intelligence to the Saudi coalition. It also continues to sell Saudi Arabia weapons. Recently it has scaled back the number of advisors based in Saudi Arabia. One Yemen expert, April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group, sees that as a sign the U.S. is trying to distance itself from an air campaign that has devastated the country and has gone on much longer than anticipated.

APRIL LONGLEY ALLEY: Inside of the country, especially in the north, this is viewed as an American war. It's an American and Saudi war against Yemen.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry says he's raised concerns about civilian casualties with his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, who says his country is being careful in its targeting unlike the Houthi rebels, who he says are laying siege to towns and villages, using children as soldiers and getting weapons from Iran.

The two men were joined by other international diplomats today to talk about ways to break the impasse and revive talks on forming a national unity government for Yemen. That was welcome news to Alley of the International Crisis Group who has watched several rounds of U.N. mediated peace talks fail.

ALLEY: So all of these elements have been discussed and have been on the table. But now that you have a strong statement by Kerry, this could potentially give it the push that it needs.

KELEMEN: She says this diplomatic push is long overdue. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.