Saudi Arabia has confirmed it has used British-manufactured cluster bombs in Yemen, despite previous denials and obstruction from the UK government.
A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition confirmed on Monday that "there was limited use by the coalition of the UK-manufactured BL755 cluster munition in Yemen" between December 2015 and January 2016.
It is more than six months since Amnesty International first raised concerns that British-manufactured cluster bombs were being used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The weapons are dropped from the air before splitting into multiple smaller bomblets, spreading munitions over a relatively large area and posing a particular risk to civilians.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon later confirmed to the House of Commons that the British bombs were used in Yemen and said they had been exported to the country in the 1980s.
"The United Kingdom fully supports both the coalition and the right of Saudi Arabia to defend itself," he said.
Fallon said Saudi Arabia had agreed to stop using the weapons: "With our support, and in complete contrast to Russian and Syrian airstrikes, where allegations are made the Saudi-led coalition is willing to investigate thoroughly, to publish the findings, and take action where appropriate."
The UK has signed a treaty pledging not to use cluster bombs, although Saudi Arabia has never made the same pledge. The cluster bombs in question were exported to Saudi Arabia before the British ban but despite this, there have been questions over the legality of use of vintage UK-manufactured weapons in the country.
The UK had previously insisted it was unaware the weapons had been used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Philip Hammond, then foreign secretary, denied the claims to the House of Commons in May: "There is no evidence yet that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions."
The conflict has torn apart the impoverished Middle Eastern country as a Saudi-led coalition fights Houthi forces that are allegedly backed by Iran. There are allegations of war crimes on both sides.
The British government has repeatedly defended its decision to sell weapons to the Saudi government while also providing tactical military advice to the country, which is a major regional ally.
In comments reported by Al Arabiya, a Saudi government spokesperson said there was "limited" use of the weapons and this would now stop.
"It has become apparent that there was limited use by the Coalition of the UK-manufactured BL-755 cluster munition in Yemen," they said. "This munition was used against legitimate military targets to defend Saudi towns and villages against continuous attacks by Houthi militia, which resulted in Saudi civilian casualties."
"Some states have undertaken a commitment to refrain from using cluster munitions by becoming party to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Neither Saudi Arabia nor its Coalition partners are States Parties to the 2008 Convention, and accordingly, the Coalition’s use of cluster munitions does not violate the obligations of these States under international law."
Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade claimed the UK has licensed £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the conflict began.
"The use of UK cluster bombs by Saudi Arabia is characteristic of a brutal war and a brutal regime," Smith said. "If Saudi forces are prepared to use cluster bombs then why is the UK continuing to arm and support the regime?"
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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