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France's Macron defends Saudi arms sales, to hold Yemen conference

PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday defended French weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, but said he was concerned by the humanitarian situation and would host a conference on the issue before the summer.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on a video camera screen as he delivers a speech on security to representatives of French national police, gendarmes and "Sentinelle" security plan soldiers at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

Pressure has been mounting on Macron to scale back arms support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are leading the coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi group that controls most of northern Yemen and the capital Sanaa.

The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 3 million, with no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough to ease the crisis.

Seventy-five percent of French people want Macron to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a YouGov poll found. Several rights groups also have warned of possible legal action if the government does not halt its sales.

“Since the start of the conflict in Yemen, France has adopted a very specific process whereby all sales of military equipment are analyzed on a case-by-case basis and on the basis of reinforced criteria that reflect respect for international humanitarian law and the risk of harm to civilian populations,” Macron said at a news conference alongside Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

France is the world’s third biggest arms exporter and counts the two countries among its biggest purchasers.

Unlike many of its allies, French export licensing procedures have no parliamentary checks or balances. They are approved through a committee headed by the prime minister that includes the foreign, defense and economy ministries.

Details of licenses are not public and, once approved, are rarely reviewed.

Stressing concerns over the humanitarian situation, Macron said he would host a conference in the coming months to see what more could be done, although he backed the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen.

“France’s position is clear: full support for the security of Saudi Arabia, condemnation of the ballistic activity coming from the Houthis, willingness to find a political solution to the conflict and strong humanitarian demands on civilian populations,” Macron said.

A Yemeni rights group on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Prince Mohammed in France, accusing him of complicity in torture and inhumane treatment in Yemen, lawyers said.

When asked about civilian casualties, Prince Mohammed said his country was working to modernize its rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties, but said that in “military operations throughout history, whatever the country, there were mistakes.”

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Michel Rose and Mark Potter