u s knew about migrant killings by saudi forces earlier than previously disclosed

The State Department says diplomats in Riyadh learned of the atrocities from research groups last summer, contradicting an earlier statement that the United States was not aware until December.

The State Department said U.S. diplomats in Saudi Arabia had first heard reports of a dramatic increase in lethal violence against migrants and asylum seekers by that nation’s border forces in the summer of last year and had immediately asked officials at “high levels” of the Saudi government to investigate.

The department made the disclosure in a statement on Thursday night to The New York Times in response to questions posed early this week about the U.S. government’s knowledge of the reported violence and its working relationship with Saudi Arabia’s border forces. Those forces have been accused in recent weeks of killing hundreds or thousands of African migrants as they have tried to cross from Yemen into the kingdom.

The statement was the first time the State Department has publicly acknowledged it has known since last summer about the reported surge in killings by the Saudi forces. That contradicts a statement last weekend by the agency that the U.S. government first heard of “allegations of abuses” when the United Nations made public disclosures in December.

The State Department also said on Thursday that the U.S. government helped train Saudi border forces from 2015 to 2023, but insisted that was focused on water-based training for maritime guards and did not include border guards on land.

The series of disclosures are drawing the attention of American lawmakers, some of whom say the U.S. government should curtail weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a longtime partner that is frequently accused of human rights violations, and dial back other aspects of U.S.-Saudi security and defense cooperation.

The scrutiny from Congress comes as President Biden and his aides are considering whether to enter into a robust defense agreement and civilian nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia and sell it more advanced weapons as part of an effort to get the country to normalize relations with Israel.

On Saturday, after The Times reported that U.S. diplomats had known about the killings since at least last fall, the State Department released a statement asserting that the U.S. government had first heard about the accusations in December.

Now the State Department says officials in the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh heard about the killings from nongovernment research groups that summer and then spoke with Saudi counterparts.

The United Nations gave more details on the killings to State Department officials in Washington in November, according to one person who was present at the briefing and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic conversations. And in December, the U.N. provided a verbal briefing to Steven H. Fagin, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Around that time, the United Nations also shared information with others at the State Department and with diplomats from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the European Union, the person said.

The killings have drawn international attention in recent weeks because of a Human Rights Watch report released on Aug. 21 that includes extensive documentation of the Saudi forces’ lethal violence against mostly Ethiopian migrants. The researchers and the migrants they interviewed accuse Saudi border forces of shooting and firing explosive projectiles at the migrants, killing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of them during the 15-month period that ended in June. The Saudi government has denied the accusations, saying they “are unfounded and not based on reliable sources.”

Ethiopian migrants at a shelter in Aden, Yemen, in 2021.Fawaz Salman/Reuters

After the report was released, State Department officials said they asked Saudi Arabia to investigate the episodes. Saudi officials have not responded.

U.S. officials cannot say with certainty that no American training or U.S.-made weapons were provided to any Saudi forces engaged in the reported killings. The American and Saudi militaries have a wide-ranging relationship, and Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s largest buyer of weapons and military equipment from the United States. American officials are not pressing Saudi Arabia to determine which units might have been involved in the killings.

The training for Saudi maritime guards was provided as a foreign military sale, which was approved by the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. At least some of the training, which ended this year, was provided by the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, U.S. officials say. Details of the training relationship were reported by The Washington Post on Thursday.

On Sunday, following the Times report, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that “Saudi forces must immediately cease these brutal, unjustified actions and respect international law and basic human rights of migrants.”

“I have requested the State Department provide details regarding the extent to which the U.S. was aware of this pattern, what actions were taken in response, and details regarding funding, training, or support to Saudi forces involved,” he said. “I’ll continue to work on ensuring U.S. policy goals and funding do not support egregious human rights violations and the killing of migrants and asylum seekers.”

Mr. Meeks and other members of Congress, mostly Democrats, call Saudi Arabia an unreliable partner and point to its human rights record, including its yearslong war in Yemen. Those lawmakers will almost certainly raise further doubts about weapons sales to Saudi Arabia or potential cooperation with it on a civilian nuclear program, which some U.S. officials fear could be cover for a nuclear weapons program. Saudi officials are demanding the cooperation from Mr. Biden as a condition for Saudi-Israel normalization.

Last October, a group of U.N. experts sent the Saudi government a letter recounting details similar to what Human Rights Watch would later publish. They cited allegations that border guards had shot at migrants, killing as many as 430 in the first four months of the year, and raped women and girls, sending some back to Yemen naked. The United Nations publicly released that letter in December.

In January, Richard Mills, the deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, made a veiled reference to the issue, saying at a closed-door Security Council briefing on Yemen that “we remain concerned by alleged abuses against migrants on the border with Saudi Arabia.”

The State Department’s statement on Thursday said one of the groups that had told U.S. diplomats based in Riyadh last summer about the killings was Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights organization. Last September, the group reported that the bodies of about 30 Yemeni and Ethiopian migrants had been found on May 12, 2022, on the Saudi side of the border, some bearing gunshot wounds or signs of torture. Later, a State Department human rights report on Saudi Arabia’s acts last year mentioned Mwatana’s research in a paragraph.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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