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Saudi-led raid on Yemen plant appears unlawful: Rights Watch

(Reuters) - A Saudi-led coalition carrying out air strikes in Yemen may have committed a war crime when it bombed two residential compounds, killing 65 people including 10 children, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

A Houthi militant walks in front of a government compound, destroyed by recent Saudi-led air strikes, in Yemen's northwestern city of Amran July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Last Friday’s attack on two compounds at the Mokha steam power plant in western Yemen was one of several air strikes in Yemen’s war that appear to have been unlawful but have not been investigated by anyone, the group said in a statement.

“Again and again, we see coalition airstrikes killing large numbers of civilians, but no signs of any investigation into possible violations,” HRW’s senior emergencies researcher, Ole Solvang, said. “If coalition members won’t investigate, the United Nations should.”

Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri denied coalition aircraft were responsible, describing the Rights Watch statement as not credible.

While coalition aircraft were active in the area on Friday, they had attacked Houthi fighters who were preparing for military action, he told Reuters.

“We know it is not coalition aircraft that bombarded civilian houses. We ask this kind of organization to be careful before saying it was the coalition or anyone else.”

“From day one we announced loud and clear we had two restrictions: We don’t conduct operations in cities among civilians. And we have an obligation to protect infrastructure. We have done it, so why would we do it now? But the Houthis do this all the time.”

The coalition has been bombing the Houthi militia and army forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh since March 26, aiming to push them back from southern and central areas and restore the country’s exiled government.

In a statement in March about Yemen’s war, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that under international humanitarian law, all countries and parties involved in conflict must distinguish between military and civilian objects, and uphold the principles of proportionality and precaution.

Friday’s 24 attack took place near the coastal city of Mokha, in the Houthi-controlled governorate of Taiz, killing dozens of civilians including children.

“The Saudi-led coalition repeatedly bombed company housing with fatal results for several dozen civilians...With no evident military target, this attack appears to be a war crime,” the HRW statement said.

HRW said it had visited the plant on Sunday and found no signs that the compounds were being used for military purposes. Residents said Houthi forces, who are the target of the coalition’s campaign, had not been there.

Videos on social media appeared to show panicked civilians running for cover during the attack on Friday night, and large numbers killed and severely wounded in its aftermath.

Saudi Arabia’s Arabiya news channel said on Saturday that the air strikes had targeted a military air defense base.

The statement said HRW had identified a military facility 800 meters southeast of the plant’s main compound, which plant workers said had been a military air defense base. The plant workers said that it had been empty for months.

Rights Watch has also accused pro-Houthi forces of apparent war crimes, saying such forces had killed two women and held aid workers hostage in Aden in April. In May, it accused the Houthis and some Islamist militias of using child soldiers. A Houthi spokesperson could not immediately be contacted for comment.

Reporting by Sam Wilkin, Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan