Airstrike by U.S. ally on bus carrying Yemeni children kills and wounds scores

Washington Post

Dozens of civilians, mostly children, were killed or injured in an airstrike on Thursday by U.S. allies on a bus in a crowded market in northern Yemen, according to health officials and international aid agencies.

In a tweet, the International Committee for the Red Cross said the attack targeted a bus carrying children in Dahyan market in Saada province, which borders Saudi Arabia. A hospital supported by the aid group has received "dozens of dead and wounded," adding that "under international humanitarian law, civilians must be protected during conflict."

The group's head of delegation in Yemen, Johannes Bruwer, tweeted "scores killed, even more injured, most under the age of 10."

"Body parts were scattered all over the area, and the sounds of moaning and crying were everywhere," said Hassan Muwlef, executive director of the Red Crescent office in Saada, who arrived an hour after the attack on Thursday morning. "The school bus was totally burned and destroyed."

Bodies were burned beyond recognition while many of the injured were riddled with shrapnel, he added.

The assault was the latest in airstrikes to target civilians by an American-backed regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The coalition entered Yemen's civil war more than three years ago to fight northern Houthi rebels who seized power from Yemen's internationally recognized government. The conflict has also turned into a de facto proxy war for regional dominance between the Sunni Muslim coalition and Iran's Shiite theocracy, which is widely believed to be backing the Shiite rebels.

Aid agencies on Thursday demanded an independent and thorough investigation into the airstrike and other recent attacks on civilians. "We have seen a worrying rise in these incidents and no action has been taken to hold the perpetrators to account," said the aid group, Save the Children in a statement. The group's Yemen director of advocacy, Sylvia Ghaly, said Thursday's attack was "yet another example of the blatant violations of international humanitarian law that we have seen in Yemen over the past three years.

"It's the people of Yemen, not the warring parties, who are paying the ultimate price."

According to the U.N. human rights office, more than 16,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the war began, the vast majority by airstrikes.

Yusuf Alhadheri, a rebel health ministry spokesman, said the death toll had reached 47 by the afternoon. With more than 63 injured, including some in critical condition, the death toll is expected to rise, he added. The ICRC reported they were scrambling to send more medical supplies and other assistance to the hospital.

The bus was carrying around 60 students, between 8 and 14 years of age, as well as teachers, said Alhadheri. The group, all part of a summer camp, were en route to visit a mosque in the center of the province, a three-decade-long tradition to celebrate the end of summer vacation, he added. At around 9 a.m., as the bus neared the market, the airstrike took place, he said.

"Some pieces from their bodies were scattered 100 meters away from the bus," said Alhadheri.

In a statement Thursday, the Saudi-led coalition said the strike was a "legitimate military action to target elements that planned and carried out" an attack that targeted civilians in Jizan, a border city in southwest Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, a Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki said the kingdom's air defense had intercepted a ballistic missile fired by the Houthi rebels at a densely populated civilian area in Jizan, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The alleged attack left one Yemeni resident dead and 11 civilians wounded, said Maliki.

But others disputed that the area of Thursday's attack posed a military threat.

"I am really shocked because there is no military base or troops in that area," said Muwlef. "Why would they carry out such an action?"

The United States is helping the coalition, the only party in the conflict to use war planes, with refueling, intelligence and billions in weapons sales. The coalition mostly uses American and British-made fighter jets. Both human rights groups and Washington Post journalists have seen remnants of U.S.-made bombs at attack sites where civilians were targeted. The U.S. assistance has come under sharp criticism from Congress and the international community as civilian deaths have continued to multiply, even as the coalition promises not to target civilians.

Last week, Yemeni rebel health officials accused the coalition of launching airstrikes in the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, killing at least 28 people and wounding scores. But Maliki denied it had done so, declaring to a Saudi-owned television network that the coalition "follows a strict and transparent approach based on the rules international law."

Hodeida has been under siege since June, even as peace efforts are underway by the United Nations. The coalition is seeking to push the Houthis out of the strategic city, whose port is an essential gateway for supplies that fuel the rebels' ability to dominate the capital, Sanaa, and the north.

Hodeida is also a key entry point for food, medicines and other aid for more than 22 million Yemenis - three quarters of the population - in need of assistance in what the United Nations describes as the world's most severe humanitarian crisis.

Raghavan reported from Cairo. The Washington Post's Kareem Fahim contributed from Riyadh.

First published in The Washington Post

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