UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Saudi Arabia's U.N. envoy said Friday "there is no justification whatsoever" for the Saudi-led coalition fighting rebels in Yemen to be on a U.N. blacklist for killing and injuring nearly 700 children in 2016.
Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi rejected "the inaccurate and misleading information and figures" in the U.N.'s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict.
But he told a news conference that one casualty is too many, and "we continue to endeavor to reduce this number to the lowest possible level."
This year's report was eagerly awaited because last year the U.S.-backed coalition was put on the blacklist but removed by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia.
His successor, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, changed the blacklist which for the first time this year lists governments, rebel groups and other parties to conflicts that are taking action to protect children — and those combatants that aren't doing anything.
Saudi Arabia is on the list of parties that are taking action.
"We think there is no justification whatsoever for the coalition to be listed anywhere because we are conducting activities there in accordance with international legitimacy, in accordance with international law" and with a 2015 Security Council resolution, Al-Mouallimi said. "We are making an effort to try to preserve and protect children and all other civilians."
But he said the coalition is taking measures to reduce casualties by continually refining rules of engagement and investigating the 50 alleged incidents in Yemen that have been reported. He said 32 of those investigations have been concluded though he didn't provide details of the findings.
Last month, Saudi Arabia also established "a child protection unit" in coalition headquarters, staffed by a colonel and two officers, Al-Mouallimi said.
Its aim is to ensure that all units, commands and operations are carried out and have safeguards that "protect children as much as possible," he said. "So we are trying to do our best in that regard, and we will need to continue to improve on our best."
Yemen, which is on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has been engulfed in civil war since September 2014, when Houthi Shiite rebels swept into the capital of Sanaa and overthrew President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi's internationally recognized government. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began a campaign in support of Hadi's government and against Houthi forces allied with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, mainly using airstrikes.
Since then, the Iranian-backed Houthis have been dislodged from most of the south, but remain in control of the capital Sanaa and much of the north. The war in Yemen has killed over 10,000 civilians, displaced 3 million people, and led to the world's largest cholera outbreak with over 700,000 suspected cases and more than 2,000 deaths this year.
In the new report, Gutteres said, "the coalition's actions objectively led to the listing for the killing and maiming of children, with 683 child casualties attributed to this party, and as a result of being responsible for 38 verified incidents, for attacks on schools and hospitals during 2016."
The secretary-general said there were 1,340 verified child casualties in Yemen — over 50 percent caused by the U.S.-backed coalition — and 414 casualites, or just over 30 percent, by the Houthis and their allies.
Al-Mouallimi said the coalition believes the Houthi child casualties are "underrepresented" and the coalition figures are "overrepresented" because the sources of information are in Houthi-controlled territory. The U.N. says the figures have been verified.
Comparing this year's report with last year's, the Saudi ambassador said last year the coalition's consultation with the U.N. was "almost nil" while this year there has been extensive contact with the office of the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, Virginia Gamba.
While the coalition objects to being on the list, Al-Mouallimi said Saudi Arabia's relations with the U.N. "are very strong, and I hope that they will continue to be very strong."