British Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field has promised to get to the bottom of “very serious and well-sourced” allegations that British SAS soldiers have been injured in a firefight with Houthi rebel soldiers in Yemen.
He was answering an urgent question asked in the British House of Commons on Tuesday by British shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who suggested that the Britons might have been witnesses to war crimes, if weekend allegations were true that UK special forces were training child soldiers in the Saudi Arabian-led coalition.
She said that as many as 40 percent of the soldiers in the coalition were children, a breach of international humanitarian law.
Field said he would be making inquiries with the British Ministry of Defence in light of the report.
He was representing the government in the absence of Alistair Burt, who on Monday night resigned as a British Foreign Office minister to vote against the government on the Brexit indicative votes amendment.
The British government has a general policy of not discussing the operations of its special forces, but Field seemed determined to provide an explanation to lawmakers.
Former British secretary of state for international development Andrew Mitchell said the allegations were serious because they flew in the face of successive assurances given by ministers at the dispatch box that the UK was not a participant in the civil war in Yemen and was only providing general logistical support to the Saudis in Riyadh.
There had been social media reports from Yemen last month suggesting that British soldiers had been injured in a firefight, and the Daily Express claimed that two SAS members had been injured during a humanitarian operation.
However, the Mail on Sunday claimed that the Special Boat Service, the Royal Navy’s equivalent of the British Army’s SAS, was not just involved in humanitarian operations, but providing mentoring teams inside Yemen, including medics, translators and forward air controllers, whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.
It claimed that five special forces soldiers have been injured.
“These serious allegations that are authoritative and credible, and fly in the face of assurances that have been given from the dispatch box on countless occasions,” Mitchell told the House of Commons.
He said he had tabled a serious written questions on the issue.
Field said he did not want to give inadvertent reassurances that turned out not to be correct.
The claims are politically difficult, as ministers are eager to suggest that as the penholder on the Yemen issue at the UN, the UK is an honest broker in the civil war, which is now entering its fifth year since the Saudi Arabian air campaign started.
The UK is known to be close to the Saudi Arabian military, but denies it is involved in operations against the Houthis in Yemen.
The claims came as UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, a former British diplomat, traveled to Saudi Arabia in a further effort to break the logjam over talks that are meant to lead to a redeployment of Houthi forces around the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida.
He was due to speak to British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt to discuss if Riyadh would be willing to put further pressure on the Yemeni government to make concessions over the deadlocked talks.
The introduction of a new security force, agreed in outline at the Stockholm peace talks in December last year, remains stalled over differences about its nature and who would have political control of it.
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