WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in a US list of countries where child soldiers are recruited and rejected the findings of his experts that a coalition led by Saudi Arabia fighters under Yemen's civil war has set the minimum age, so four persons familiar with the matter.
FILE PHOTO: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at a joint press conference in The Hague, The Netherlands, on 3 June 2019. REUTERS / Piroschka Van De Wouw / File photo
The decision was taken after a heated internal debate that could lead to new ones Allegations by human rights activists and some legislators have led the administration of US President Donald Trump to prioritize security and economic interests in relations with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a major US ally and armaments client.
Pompeo's move is in the midst of increasing tensions between the United States and Iran, the Saudi rival's regional rival.
US State Department experts recommended adding Saudi Arabia to the list of forthcoming countries. This was based, inter alia, on reports and assessments by human rights groups that the desert kingdom in Sudan engaged child fighters to fight for the US-backed coalition in Yemen, the four sources said.
The Saudi government, the Saudi embassy in Washington, and the coalition led by Saudi Arabia did not respond to requests for comment. The coalition has previously stated that it respects international human rights standards and refuses to use child soldiers.
The experts' recommendation met with opposition from some other US State Department officials who said that three sources said it was unclear whether the Sudanese forces were under the control of Sudanese officers or led by the Saudi-led coalition.
A December New York Times report quoted Sudanese fighters as saying that their commanders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have kept them at a safe distance from the fighting against the coalition's enemies, the Iranian-aligned Houthi. Militias, led.
Pompeo rejected the recommendation of experts from the US Department of State's anti-trafficking office. The four sources spoke under the condition of anonymity. The office plays a key role in investigating the use of child soldiers worldwide. "The United States condemns the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. We attach great importance to ending the practice where it takes place, "a State Department official responded to Reuters questions. However, the official did not specifically address the Saudi decision or whether Riad's security relations with Washington were considered.
Instead of putting Saudi Arabia on the list, Sudan will be reinstated after removal last year, sources said.
A spokesman for Sudan's paramilitary forces, who contributed fighters to the Yemen war, said the force was affiliated to the Sudanese military. "Under Sudanese law, minors are not employed," he said. He did not answer directly to the question of who controlled the Sudanese forces in Yemen.
The UAE government did not respond to a request for comment.
The list of child soldiers will be part of the US Department of State's annual report on global trafficking, which is expected to be released Thursday, sources said.
US HELP PROHIBITION
The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act requires the US State Department to report annually to countries employing child fighters. This is defined as "any person under the age of 18 who, as a member, participates directly in hostilities by government forces. "
Foreign military men on the list can not receive US assistance, training and weapons unless the President issues a total or partial suspension of these sanctions based on" national interest ". Trump and its predecessors have done this in the past for countries with close security relations with the United States.
While internal debates on issues such as violations of child soldiers often take place prior to the publication of the State Department's annual list, this one was particularly heated, several sources said.
Since the end of 2016, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia has sent up to 14,000 Sudanese, including children over the age of 14, to Yemen to pay up to $ 10,000 per recruit New York Times. The article cited Sudanese fighters who had returned home and Sudanese legislators.
In Washington, the Yemen conflict is a controversial issue that goes far beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Relying on the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have aggravated their efforts to block Trump in the aftermath of the civilian handover of the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen Billion dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Congressmen Tom Malinowski and Ted Lieu organized a letter to Pompeo from more than a dozen lawmakers in March, saying they were "deeply concerned about credible reports" about the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the Sudanese child fighters in Yemen.
They called for a US investigation, including whether they were armed with weapons manufactured in the US, and called for an investigation into "credible evidence that Houthi forces compulsorily force minors to fight."
Sudan sent thousands of troops to Yemen, which conquered most of the country's most populous areas, and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in the civil war against the Houthis in 2015 forced into exile.
Allegations of the use of child soldiers have been persecuted by the parties to the bloody conflict from the beginning.
A report by an Independent Expert Group to the United Nations Human Rights Council in August 2018 stated that all sides in Yemen "have recruited or confiscated children into armed forces or groups and used them to participate actively in hostilities."  The administration of Trump has in the past been confronted with controversy over the treatment of the problem of child soldiers.
Reuters reported in 2017 that then-Foreign Minister Rex Tillerson has decided to remove Iraq and Myanmar from the child soldiers list, and declined to add Afghanistan, although the ministry has publicly acknowledged that in those countries still children are confiscated.
The US Department of State said at the time that the use of child soldiers was "despicable" but still "law-abiding." Pompeo, succeeding Tillerson, put Iraq and Myanmar back on the list last year.
coverage by Matt Spetalnick and Jonathan Landay; Additional coverage by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Ghaida Gantou and Aziz Yaakoubi on the Gulf; Edited by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin