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UN's Ban Stresses Need to Protect Yemeni Children From Saudi Airstrikes

FILE - Children play amid the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sana'a, Yemen, Sept. 8, 2015.

The U.N. secretary-general said Tuesday that he still had “very strong concerns” about protecting Yemen's children from airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition fighting there.

Ban Ki-moon made the remark during a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on his annual report about children in armed conflict. The report, which includes a blacklist of entities that harm children in war, this year listed the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen as one of the parties that kills and maims children and engages in attacks on schools and hospitals.

The Saudis protested their inclusion on the list. Ban, bending to what he said was “undue pressure” and threats of losing funding for lifesaving U.N. programs, agreed to take the coalition off the blacklist until a review could be completed.

“I have since received information on measures taken by the coalition to prevent and end grave violations against children,” Ban told the council. “I still have very strong concerns about the protection of Yemeni children. They must always come first.”

He said U.N. officials would continue to engage with Saudi officials about their concerns, but that “the content of the report stands.”

Ban told member states, “If you want to protect your image, protect children.”

His special representative on children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, said the goal of the report “is not to cause discomfort, but rather to bring about change for boys and girls confronted by violations the international community considers abhorrent.”

Saudis point fingers

Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, condemned the governments of Israel and Syria for their exploitation of children, including the Syrian regime’s targeting of schools and hospitals — one of the same charges alleged against Saudi coalition forces in Yemen.

Al-Mouallimi said his government makes children a priority and has set up a group to investigate the allegations.

“We will submit the findings to the U.N. as soon as possible,” he said.

He again dismissed accusations that the Saudis had pressured Ban to remove them from the blacklist, saying, “We never applied any such pressure on the secretary-general.”

Human rights groups called again Tuesday for the coalition to be returned to the blacklist.

"Unlawful airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have killed and maimed hundreds of children in Yemen and damaged dozens of schools, but the coalition strong-armed the secretary-general in an attempt to escape scrutiny,” said Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch. “The coalition should be returned to the secretary-general’s list of shame until it stops its indiscriminate bombardment of Yemen’s civilians."