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Anger as Saudi-led coalition cut from UN blacklist of warring parties killing children

Announcement comes on same day as four children reported killed in a coalition airstrike on a vehicle in Saada province
The coalition, which intervened in 2015 in Yemen to support the government against Houthi rebels, has been widely blamed for civilian casualties in bombing raids (Reuters)

Campaigners reacted angrily on Monday after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres removed the Saudi-led military coalition from a United Nations blacklist, several years after it was first named and shamed for killing and injuring children in Yemen.

"The Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen will be delisted for the violation of killing and maiming, following a sustained significant decrease... due to air strikes," said the UN's newly-published annual report on children in conflict zones.

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It said the toll had fallen since an agreement signed in March 2019.

The announcement came on the same day that a Saudi-led coalition airstrike struck a vehicle carrying civilians in northern Yemen, killing 13 people, including four children, according to Houthi rebels.

Yemeni tribal leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, told Associated Press that Saudi warplanes had targeted a vehicle in the Shada area of Saada province, a rebel stronghold, killing everyone inside.

The coalition, which intervened in 2015 in Yemen to support the government against Houthi rebels, has been widely blamed for civilian casualties in bombing raids.

Human Rights Watch denounced Guterres for dropping the coalition from the "list of shame," saying he was "ignoring the UN's own evidence of continued grave violations against children".

The Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict said that "by absolving the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition of any responsibility for killing and maiming children in Yemen, the UN Secretary-General has left children vulnerable to further attacks".

'Shocking decision'

The coalition killed or injured 222 children in Yemen last year, Guterres wrote in his report. 

He said the Houthis were responsible for 313 such casualties and Yemen government forces for 96 casualties and both remain on the annual children and armed conflict blacklist.

Guterres said the coalition would "be delisted for the violation of killing and maiming, following a sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes" and the implementation of measures aimed at protecting children.

He said that the coalition would be subjected to one year of monitoring and "any failure" to further decrease child casualties would result in it being listed again next year.

Inger Ashing of Save the Children called it a "shocking decision" by Guterres.

Virginia Gamba, the secretary general's envoy for children and armed conflict, said the UN had come "under no pressure" from Saudi Arabia and that the removal from the list was based on data, AFP reported.

Saudi threat

In 2016, the coalition was briefly included on the annual list before a threat by Saudi Arabia to cut off funding to UN programmes forced a reversal.

The following year, after Guterres assumed the UN leadership, the coalition was placed in a sub-section of the report created for those making efforts to avoid deaths of children. It remained there in 2018 and 2019.

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The report, which reviews several conflicts worldwide each year, said 4,019 children were verified as having been killed and more than 6,000 maimed in 2019.

The numbers were similar to 2018, according to the UN.

The report partially removed the Myanmar armed forces, called Tatmadaw, from the blacklist.

They no longer appear for recruitment of children but remain on the list for their death, mutilation and rape.

Guterres cited "a continued significant decrease in recruitment, ongoing prosecutions and an agreement to continue to trace and release cases."

Save the Children described the move as "premature and dangerous".