France accuses Iran of arming Yemen's Huthi rebels


Paris (AFP)

France on Thursday accused Iran of supplying weapons to Huthi rebels waging a three-year fight against a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and rejected Tehran's denial.

"There is a problem in Yemen, it is that the political process has not begun, that Saudi Arabia feels regularly attacked by the Huthis, who are themselves supplied with arms by Iran," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio.

Iran has said it supports the Huthis' cause in Yemen but has repeatedly denied arming them, despite claims by the United States and Saudi Arabia of evidence of weapon shipments.

Le Drian's comments come just days before an official visit to France by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose government has threatened Iran with retaliation after Huthi rebels fired seven missiles into Saudia Arabia last weekend.

They could also strain tensions between Iran and France ahead of an expected visit by President Emmanuel Macron to Tehran in the coming weeks, which would be the first by a French head of state or government since 1976.

France has resisted international pressure to stop supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the main players in the coalition which supports Yemen's pro-government forces.

Amnesty International last week said the shipments by France, along with the US and Britain, had contributed to the deaths of thousands of civilians in attacks by coalition forces.

But Le Drian insisted Thursday that the weapon sales complied with international law.

"We have a very rigorous framework on weapon exports which we adhere to with great vigilance," he said.

- Stepping up pressure -

The conflict in Yemen, which has killed an estimated 10,000 people, comes as Iran is under increasing pressure over its role in several Middle East conflicts.

Le Drian visited Tehran in early March to lay the groundwork for Macron's coming visit, and to discuss the landmark 2015 deal with international powers that curtailed Iran's nuclear programme.

US President Donald Trump has threatened to walk away from the deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran when it next comes up for renewal by the American president in May.

But although Macron along with other European leaders has made no secret of his desire to secure the deal, he has also repeatedly criticised Tehran's ballistic missile programme.

He has also called on Tehran to rein in the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad after weeks of assaults by his forces against rebels in Eastern Ghouta, which has prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

Iran and Russia are Bashar's main backers in his war against a rebellion launched in 2011.

Le Drian said Thursday that Macron was still planning to visit Russia in May "for the time being", despite rapidly deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain.

"We want a frank discussion with Moscow, a demanding one without any ambiguity, to ask Moscow to respect international law," he said.