Saudi Arabia Tried to Blame Doctors Without Borders After Bombing Yemen Cholera Treatment Center

By: Ben Norton | June 14, 2018
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The Saudi embassy in the United States pointed the finger at Doctors Without Borders after the US-backed Saudi coalition bombed the medical humanitarian group’s newly constructed cholera treatment center in Yemen.

The Saudi government circulated a misleading fax from a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) employee, to try to absolve itself of responsibility for the airstrike. I contacted MSF for clarification, and the organization said the fax is being misrepresented, and strongly condemned the “unacceptable attack on a medical facility.”

On June 11, the US-backed Saudi coalition waging war on Yemen bombed a cholera treatment center in the northwestern town of Abs. This medical facility, which had just been built, was operated by MSF, and was clearly marked on the roof with the logos of MSF and the Red Crescent.

The Saudi coalition has repeatedly targeted civilian infrastructure in its three-year war on Yemen, with more than one-third of its thousands of air raids hitting civilian sites. This has devastated the health system in the poorest country in the Middle East, unleashing the worst humanitarian catastrophe on Earth and the largest cholera outbreak in recorded history, with more than 1 million cases of the easily preventable disease in 2017 alone.

Early on June 13, the embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC tweeted a photo of a fax from MSF’s administrator of communication and liaison in Djibouti. This document is dated June 11, and the Saudi embassy claimed it showed MSF “clearly admit that the unfortunate facility incident was due to their failure to update their coordinates per standard procedures.”

MSF told me this claim is false. The organization clarified that it gave the Saudi coalition the GPS coordinates for its cholera treatment center at least 12 times in writing, and the coalition “acknowledged receipt of these coordinates in writing at least nine times.”

In its June 13 tweet, the Saudi embassy tagged Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who has forcefully spoken out against the US-backed war in Yemen. He was one of the most high-profile public figures to draw attention to the Saudi coalition’s attack on the cholera treatment center.

Immediately after the airstrike on June 11, Sen. Murphy tweeted, “Let me repeat that – the U.S helped bomb A DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS CHOLERA TREATMENT FACILITY.”

I contacted Doctors Without Borders, inquiring if the fax tweeted by the Saudi embassy is real, and asking for the organization to respond to Saudi Arabia’s claims.

“A letter circulating on social media is not fake, but it was based on premature and incomplete information and does not represent MSF’s official response to the bombing of its cholera treatment center in Abs, Yemen, on June 11,” MSF senior press officer Tim Shenk wrote to me in an email.

“MSF records clearly demonstrate that the GPS coordinates for the center were shared at least 12 times in writing with the Saudi and Emirati-led Coalition’s (SELC) Evacuation and Humanitarian Operation Cell (EHOC),” he said. “The coordinates were shared on a weekly basis, over a period of more than two months prior to the bombing. EHOC acknowledged receipt of these coordinates in writing at least nine times. The SELC was therefore aware of the coordinates.”

“An official letter was sent to the SELC by MSF’s general director today (June 13, 2018) that elaborates these points,” Shenk continued. “This letter represents MSF’s official institutional response to the bombing of the medical facility in Abs.”

“MSF maintains that the bombing is an unacceptable attack on a medical facility. It destroyed a patient ward and damaged an adjacent triage and observation ward,” he wrote. “MSF strongly condemns this attack, which is part of a worrying pattern of strikes on essential medical services that leave an already very fragile population with even less access to essential, lifesaving medical care and services.”

Doctors Without Borders’ Yemen team also published a four-part Twitter thread, hours after the Saudi embassy began circulating this misleading fax.

MSF’s cholera treatment center “is located in a compound exclusively used by MSF and clearly identified as a medical facility,” the organization tweeted. “There are three logos displayed on the roofs, including one MSF logo and two Red Crescent emblems.”

“GPS coordinates of MSF Cholera Treatment Center compound were shared twelve times with KSA Evacuation and Humanitarian Operation Cell (EHOC),” it added.

Sen. Murphy likewise publicly responded to the Saudi embassy’s misleading claims and “impressive chutzpah.” In a five-part Twitter thread, he wrote, “what did the Saudis THINK THEY WERE BOMBING? The entire compound is used by humanitarian groups!”

“Looks like evidence that the Saudi/UAE/U.S. coalition is still targeting civilian sites,” the lawmaker added.

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Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.