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85,000 children have starved to death during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, says new report

The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan visited Yemen in late May to report on what the United Nations describes as the world's most severe humanitarian crisis. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan, Joyce Lee, Ali Najeeb/The Washington Post)
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One day after President Trump backed the Saudi crown prince over accusations that he may have ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a leading charity has issued a blistering report that poses more uncomfortable questions over Saudi practices.

More than 85,000 children may have died of hunger since Saudi Arabia intervened in the war in Yemen three years ago, according to Save the Children, an international NGO.

“For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are starving to death and it’s entirely preventable,” said Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen.

With only a few hospitals still operational, the nongovernmental organization says that the human toll of the conflict cannot be fully captured by simply relying on official numbers.

Instead, the charity used historical mortality rates and United Nations data on Yemeni malnutrition to estimate that more than 25,000, or 20 to 30 percent of all acutely malnourished children, have died every year since April 2015. The estimates, the NGO said, may still be lower than the actual number of deaths.

“Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop. Their immune systems are so weak they are more prone to infections, with some too frail to even cry,” said Save the Children representative Kirolos.

“Parents are having to witness their children wasting away, unable to do anything about it,” he said.

According to the United Nations, half the Yemeni population suffers from famine.

Based on United Nations data, Save the Children says extreme hunger may have killed an estimated 85,000 Yemeni children under five in the last 3.5 years of war. (Video: Reuters)

The United States has remained largely silent on the war, even when Saudi Arabia enacted a blockade on its borders with Yemen last November. Since then, human rights groups have struggled to supply some of the most malnourished areas in the country with food and drinking water. About 90 percent of the country is considered to be desert or arid and the Yemeni government heavily relied on food imports before the conflict.

What began as a rebellion by the country’s Shiite-majority Houthi rebels during the Arab Spring has turned into a bigger confrontation between Saudi Arabia and its archrival Iran, which supports the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has received support from eight other Arab states that are also opposed to Iran’s influence. U.S. officials long argued that the involvement of Iran has made it impossible to end the conflict, but criticism of that assessment has mounted as the conflict became the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Western nations have remained careful in calibrating their responses, to neither disgruntle the wealthy and investment-eager Saudi leadership nor domestic human rights supporters. Germany, for instance, reduced its arms equipment sales to Saudi Arabia and vowed to stop them completely, but approved new sales earlier this year. (Those sales have now been stopped amid the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Khashoggi).

In the United States, Trump has put Saudi investments and arms purchases first, even as members of his administration have pressured the Saudis to stop the Yemeni conflict. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both said in October that the war should come to an end. The United States exports more arms to Saudi Arabia than any other country.

“It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction,” Pompeo said.

Earlier this month, the administration added more pressure by ending its practice of refueling Saudi-coalition aircraft involved in the conflict. Critics said the Saudi military used those planes to drop bombs on nonmilitary targets, killing thousands of civilians.

The Saudi-led coalition appears to be aware of the mounting international resistance, too, and has handed its supporters some arguments in its favor. This week, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $500 million in aid to Yemen.

But the bombardment has continued, according to Save the Children. “In the past few weeks there have been hundreds of airstrikes in and around Hodeidah, endangering the lives of an estimated 150,000 children still trapped in the city,” Kirolos said.

Hodeidah is one of Yemen’s key port cities and has long been the access point to reach the country’s north. As fighting has continued there, nongovernmental organizations have used the port of Aden, in the south, from which it takes two additional weeks to reach the malnourished north of the country, where a majority of the population lives.

As Save the Children was getting ready to release its devastating report Tuesday, Trump addressed the same issue. Ignoring evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has also escalated the conflict, Trump wrote that Iran is instead “responsible for a bloody proxy war.”

“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave,” Trump continued.

Iran is allied with the Houthi rebels and has been accused of supplying them with weapons, including ballistic missiles, but Iranian troops are not present on the ground in Yemen.

By Wednesday morning, the U.S. president had already moved on, when he tweeted about the role Saudi Arabia has supposedly played in driving down oil prices.

“Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower,” he wrote.

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