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Doctors Without Borders Evacuates Teams From Hospitals In North Yemen

Yemenis inspect the damage in a room at a hospital operated by the Paris-based aid agency Doctors Without Borders in Abs, in the northern province of Hajjah, on Tuesday.
AFP/Getty Images
Yemenis inspect the damage in a room at a hospital operated by the Paris-based aid agency Doctors Without Borders in Abs, in the northern province of Hajjah, on Tuesday.

Doctors Without Borders says it is evacuating its staff from hospitals in northern Yemen after 19 people died when an airstrike hit one of its hospitals on Monday.

"Given the intensity of the current offensive and our loss of confidence in the Saudi-led coalition's ability to prevent such fatal attacks, MSF considers the hospitals in Saada and Hajjah governorates unsafe for both patients and staff," the group — also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF — says in a statement. It adds that the hospitals will continue operating "with staff from the Ministry of Health and volunteers."

The Saudi-led coalition, which supports Yemen's embattled president, has been waging an air campaign against Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels since March 2015. The Houthis hail from the north of the country, and according to MSF, the "coalition has resumed an intensified campaign" there since the Houthis and the coalition suspended peace talks earlier this month.

Coalition members said in a statement released on Saudi Arabia's state news agency that they "very much regret" MSF's decision. "We are seeking urgent discussions with MSF to understand how we can work together to resolve this situation."

However, MSF says it has tried to communicate with the coalition, to no avail. "Over the last eight months, MSF has met with high-ranking Saudi-led coalition officials on two occasions in Riyadh to secure humanitarian and medical assistance for Yemenis, as well as to seek assurances that attacks on hospitals would end," the statement reads. "Aerial bombings have, however, continued, despite the fact that MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals in which we work with the parties involved in the conflict."

MSF Director of Operations Raquel Ayora says, "The explanations given by the Saudi-led coalition are not enough reassurance for us." Here's more:

"We don't think that all measures necessary are being taken to prevent more incidents. We have the feeling this incident might happen again, and we consider therefore that hospitals are not safe. Not for the patients, not for our staff."

Ayora calls the decision to pull MSF staff from the six hospitals an extremely difficult one and adds that she hopes it is temporary. She says MSF fears that resources now will be diverted to focus on treating war wounded, rather than branches such as maternity services or chronic diseases.

The group says the bombing of the Abs hospital in Hajjah governorate earlier this week was the fourth attack on an MSF-supported facility in the past year. "At the time of the airstrike the hospital was full of patients, including newborns and children," an MSF statement reads, noting that the now-closed facility has treated 4,611 patients since July 2015.

"This new incident shows that there are no effective measures in place to ensure that hospitals are not another casualty of war," says Teresa Sancristóval, manager of MSF's Emergency Unit.

According to The Associated Press, "rights groups and U.N. agencies say that more than 9,000 people have been killed since the Yemen war escalated with the Saudi-led airstrikes."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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