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French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the Artificial Intelligence for Humanity event in Paris, France, March 29, 2018. Etienne Laurent/Pool via Reuters(reuters_tickers)
By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Ten rights groups urged French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday to use a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to press him to end a blockade of Yemeni ports and work for a diplomatic solution to the conflict there.
Pressure is mounting on Macron to scale back military support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are leading the coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi group that controls most of northern Yemen and the capital Sanaa.
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than three million.
With Prince Mohammed arriving in France on Sunday for a three-day visit, lawmakers and rights groups want Macron to suspend weapons sales to the two countries, which are among its biggest purchasers.
"The bombing of civilians in Yemen must stop and we call on all sides in the conflict to stop them immediately," Anne Hery of Handicap International said.
"Ahead of the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed, President Macron has a choice: protect civilians or sell weapons."
Some European countries, notably Germany, have curtailed ties with the Saudi-led military coalition. But France, Britain and the United States have not followed suit.
However, Paris has grown increasingly concerned by a worsening humanitarian situation and in December Macron called for a "complete lifting" of a Saudi blockade on Yemen.
The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.
"France has to have a larger discussion not just about the sale of arms, but the blockade of this country. That strategy hasn't worked," Jonathan Cunliffe, Director of Middle East operations for Action Against Hunger, told reporters.
Prince Mohammed's visit comes at a delicate moment in French-Saudi relations. Ex-president Francois Hollande nurtured closer ties with Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia, as Paris took a tough stance on Iran during nuclear negotiations.
Hollande awarded former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef France's highest honour the Legion d'Honneur in 2016.
However, the 32-year-old new crown prince has in past months emphasised closer ties with U.S. President Donald Trump just as Macron has sought to improve relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite rival for regional influence.
"Prince Salman deserves neither the Legion d'Honneur nor the red carpet, he deserves sanctions," said Benedicte Jeannerod, director of Human Rights Watch in France.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Richard Balmforth)