CAIRO (AP) — A Saudi-led coalition battling Shiite rebels and their allies in Yemen used U.S.-supplied bombs in an airstrike last month on a market that killed at least 119 people, a human rights group said Thursday, further highlighting American involvement in the conflict.
The March 15 bombing targeting the northwestern town of Mastaba marked the second-deadliest airstrike of the year-long Saudi-helmed campaign — and the results were horrific. Survivors said the outdoor market, next to a shantytown inhabited largely by people who fled there from other battle zones, was obliterated by double strikes that came about 10 minutes apart, with mangled bodies thrown hundreds of yards away.
"I saw the sky raining ball of black fire," recalled a 30-year-old gas worker Omar Mallah, whose brother and several other relatives were killed.
Human Rights Watch said its investigators traveled to the town in Yemen's northwestern Hajja province, controlled by the Shiite rebels known as Houthis. There, the group said it found fragments of a 900-kilogram (2,000-pound) MK-84 bomb and a kind of satellite-guidance hardware known as a JDAM, which together are known as a GBU-31 bomb.
The group said the bomb, as well as its guidance equipment, was supplied by the U.S. Their finding matched an earlier report by British television channel ITV, which said its journalists found remnants of what likely was another MK-84 bomb and a different kind of satellite guiding system supplied by the United States.
"One of the deadliest strikes against civilians in Yemen's yearlong war involved U.S.-supplied weapons, illustrating tragically why countries should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia," Priyanka Motaparthy, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The U.S. and other coalition allies should send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that they want no part in unlawful killings of civilians."
Rights groups have repeatedly warned that U.S. and European weapons sold to Saudi Arabia could be used in strikes violating international law. Saudi Arabia and its allies launched their air campaign in March 2015 aiming to stop advances by the rebels, known as Houthis, who had driven the government out of the capital.
Since then, fighting between the rebels and Saudi-backed factions and airstrikes have killed at least 9,000 people, an estimated 3,000 of them civilians, according to the U.N., which says at least 60 percent of the civilian deaths come from strikes, which have often hit crowded areas including markets, hospitals, factories, schools and residential districts. Coalition officials dispute those figures. The war has displaced 2.4 million people and caused widespread malnutrition.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military action in the Mideast, declined to comment on specifics about the Mastaba bombing, saying that the "selection and final vetting of targets in the campaign are made by the members of the Saudi-led coalition, not the United States."
"The U.S. is confident that the information that we relay and noncombat support we provide to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members is sound and provides them the best options for military success consistent with international norms and specifically mitigating the potential for civilian casualties," U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a Central Command spokesman, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The U.S. is believed to offer the Saudi-led coalition satellite images and other intelligence about Yemen to guide its campaign.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asked about the report during a visit to Bahrain, said, "I don't have any solid information, any documentation with respect to what weapon might have been used."
"Whatever weapons are being used, our preference is that all shooting stops," he said.
Saudi officials have said they were investigating the strike, though they previously insisted most of the casualties were Houthi combatants.
Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri sent the AP a map via Whatsapp showing three red circles: One identified as a Houthi gathering position, a second as a small market adjacent to the Houthi position and a third as the large market. He said the airstrikes hit the small market next to Houthi gathering because this is where the militants were buying qat, a leaf chewed by Yemenis.
The Human Rights Watch report said there was a Houthi checkpoint about 250 yards (meters) from the market. It cited witnesses saying 10 Houthi fighters were among the dead in the market.
At Mastaba, relatives of several victims recounted to the AP a horrific scene, searching for days for body parts strewn over a wide area, over trees and rooftops, some as far as a sports center about a quarter-mile (half kilometer) away. Many were eventually buried in a nearby mass grave.
Mastaba was considered a safe haven for those fleeing towns closer to the Saudi border that were heavily pounded in airstrikes. Impoverished residents of a nearby slum of mud-brick houses often sent their children to work in the qat market. UNICEF said 22 children were among the dead in the strikes.
The timing of the airstrikes, at a time when people stock up on qat before lunchtime, contributed to the high death toll. Witnesses said that as rescuers came in to help victims of the first strike, the second strike hit.
Hassan Mafafi said it took him a whole day to locate one piece of remains from his 18-year-old son, Abdel-Rahman. He found his right leg, which he recognized from a scar marking an old axe wound. Choking back tears, he said he still couldn't bring himself to look at his son's picture tucked in his wallet.
Mansour al-Bakili said he collected 18 pieces he believed were body parts of his son, Mohammed. "We put them all in cloth and buried them," he said.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Manama, Bahrain, contributed to this report.
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