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Foreign Office minister defends Saudi arms sales after deadly bus strike

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt faced repeated calls to stop the sale of arms to Riyadh (PA) Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt has defended arms sales to Saudi Arabia after coalition forces carried out a deadly air strike on a busy Yemeni market.

As MPs returned to the Commons after summer recess, Mr Burt faced repeated calls to stop the sale of arms to Riyadh after the strike on August 9 which left at least 51 people, 40 of whom were children, dead.

Mr Burt defended the UK’s position on arms sales, stating that Saudi Arabia was under attack from Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.

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He said: “The coalition acted in support of a legitimate government, they’re currently having missiles fired at civilian targets in their own states.

“I don’t see the political justification for withdrawing our arms.”

Mr Burt added: “We assess arms exports to Saudi Arabia against strict criteria, the key test is whether there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law, we take this very seriously and keep the licensing decisions under careful review.”

Human Rights Watch said the attack which hit the bus added to the coalition’s “already gruesome track record of killing civilians at weddings, funerals, hospitals and schools in Yemen”.

It has urged countries to “immediately halt weapons sales” to Saudi Arabia.

The SNP’s defence procurement spokesman Douglas Chapman accused the Government of being “tone deaf” to concerns and asked: “How many more Yemeni children have to die?”

Shadow Foreign Office minister Fabian Hamilton later cited a United Nations report which found the Saudi coalition was “routinely ignoring its own no strike list of 30,000 civilian targets”.

He added: “In the light of this, how can the Government continue to claim that there is no clear risk that the arms we sell to Riyadh are being used to violate international humanitarian law?”

Mr Burt responded saying that the report was “not accepted in full by the coalition”, adding: “The important thing is international and humanitarian law must be adhered to.”

Yemen’s civil war has been raging since March 2015.

The coalition said it had accepted the conclusions of its investigative body, known as the Joint Incidents Assessments Team, which found that the August 9 air strike involved “mistakes” including failing to take measures to minimise collateral damage.

The coalition said “it will take all the legal measures to hold accountable those who were proven to have committed mistakes” once it officially received the findings. It also pledged to coordinate with Yemen’s government to compensate civilians.