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REPORTS that British special forces are taking part in “gun battles” in Yemen alongside Saudi-funded militias who use child soldiers will be the subject of an internal investigation, the government claimed today.
Foreign Office Minister Mark Field came under pressure from Labour and Conservative MPs who were alarmed by a report in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday (MoS).
The newspaper claimed that five members of Britain’s ultra-secret Special Boat Service — the SAS’s naval counterpart — have been shot while serving in Yemen, although Britain is not officially at war with that country.
The casualties had to be evacuated back to Britain, but dozens of commandos remain on the ground, including some “forward air controllers” who direct Saudi air strikes, the newspaper said.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry asked in an urgent Commons question whether “the government still stands by its long-running statement that Britain is not a party to this conflict?”
She added: “Given everything we already do know about our support for the Saudi air force and our supply of billions in arms to the Saudi coalition, if we now discover our forces are in actual ‘gun battles’ with Houthi rebels, then if all that doesn’t constitute being a party to the conflict, I really don’t know what does.”
“One especially disturbing allegation in the MoS report was that our forces are providing support to locally recruited Saudi-funded militia where many of the fighters, up to 40 per cent it was alleged, are children as young as 13 years old.”
If the MoS report is true, “it would confirm that our forces are not just a party to this conflict but witnesses to war crimes,” Ms Thornberry pointed out.
In response, Mr Field pledged that the government “will investigate [the allegations] as a matter of urgency.”
The minister said that claims about British troops fighting in Yemen were “very serious” and that “any engagement that relates to bringing child soldiers on board would be appalling.”
However, he refused to confirm or deny the deployment of British special forces, with such matters being exempt from freedom of information requests and parliamentary oversight.
Tory MP Alan Duncan echoed Labour’s concerns, saying the allegation that “serving British military personnel have been wounded in operations in Yemen … flies in the face of assurances that have been given from the dispatch box on countless occasions.”
However, the deployment of British special forces in Yemen has long been suspected and former SAS soldier Ben Griffin told the Morning Star it would be “business as usual.”
The tussle in Parliament came as Yemen entered its fifth year of an armed conflict that has led to the country, the poorest in the Middle East, suffering famine and the death of over 60,000 people, many of them children who starved.
Britain has licensed almost £5 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi forces since the start of the war, a policy that campaigners will challenge at the Court of Appeal next month.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the worst in the world.
“No matter how bad the situation has become, Jeremy Hunt and his colleagues have put arms company profits ahead of the rights and lives of Yemeni people.”
Stop the War Coalition vice-chair Chris Nineham said: “It is shameful that Britain is not just supporting but participating in a war that has created the biggest humanitarian crisis on Earth.”
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