At least five members of Britain's special forces have reportedly been injured in gun battles in Yemen. If true, the story has serious implications because the British government has long insisted that it is not a party to the conflict.
According to the Mail on Sunday, commandos from Britain's Special Boat Service (SBS) have been treated for gunshot wounds following "fierce clashes" with Houthi fighters in Yemen's Saada province which borders on Saudi Arabia.
The paper quoted an unnamed "SBS source" as saying:
"The guys are fighting in inhospitable desert and mountainous terrain against highly committed and well-equipped Houthi rebels. The SBS’s role is mainly training and mentoring but on occasions they have found themselves in firefights and some British troops have been shot.
"In a contact a few weeks ago, a SBS guy was shot in the hand and another guy was shot in the leg. Their injuries were a reminder that this is a very dangerous assignment."
Despite urging a peaceful solution to the conflict, the British government has been arming the Saudi-led coalition in its four-year battle against Houthi rebels. British military personnel have also been providing other forms of support and "liaison" while supposedly refraining from actual combat.
In the British parliament on Tuesday, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry cited the Mail's report and asked:
"Do the government still stand by their long-standing statements that Britain is not a party to this conflict? We already know about our support for the Saudi air force and our supply of billions in arms for the Saudi coalition. If, in addition to all that, our forces are engaged in actual gun battles with the Houthi rebels and that does not constitute being a party to the conflict, I really do not know what does."
Thornberry also highlighted the apparent contradiction in the government's stance:
"It is an equally long-standing position of the government that there is no military solution to this conflict. Indeed, the Minister has reaffirmed that today. So I simply ask this: why, if these reports are accurate, are British forces being put in harm’s way trying to deliver that military solution?"
Foreign office minister Mark Field replied that the paper's allegations were very serious and there would be an urgent investigation.
A further issue raised in the Mail's report is that Britain appears to be conniving in the use of child soldiers. The Houthis have long been using child soldiers but according to the Mail the British-backed coalition is using them too. In fighting on the ground, the coalition relies heavily on Yemeni tribal militias which recruit boys in their early teens.
The paper quoted an unnamed "former British serviceman who returned earlier this year from Yemen":
"The tribal leaders accept payments from the Saudis and the UAE in return for youths aged 13 and 14 to bolster the front line. They are poorly armed and have no body armour. So they get picked off by the Iranian-backed rebels.
"It’s not just the odd youth either – child soldiers can make up to 40 per cent of the manpower in these militia units. In spite of their disadvantages, the militia do most of the fighting in Yemen because the Saudi soldiers don’t want to leave their air-conditioned camps."