An airstrike launched by the U.S.-backed and Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen hit a school bus in the rebel-held north of the country Thursday, killing and injuring dozens of people, many of them children, according to local and international medical officials.
The regional coalition, which backs Yemen’s internationally recognized government, said the strike was part of a legitimate military operation targeting missile launchers in Saada province, a stronghold of the Houthi rebels on the border with Saudi Arabia.
It was the latest in a long line of horrific attacks in Yemen, where a grinding civil war, now in its fourth year, has killed thousands of people, displaced at least 2 million others and created a humanitarian disaster in the Arab world’s poorest nation.
The bus was ferrying children from a summer school when it was hit near the Dahyan market, according to Youssef Hadri, a spokesman for the Houthi Ministry of Health. At least 50 people were killed, most of them children, and 77 others injured, he said.
Yemen’s rebel-run Al Masirah TV broadcast images of burned and bloodied children arriving at a hospital for treatment, some of them still wearing their school backpacks.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said a hospital it supports received 29 bodies from the attack. Of the 48 people treated there, 30 were children, said Sara al-Zawqari, an ICRC spokeswoman based in Beirut.
“It was a very overwhelming and horrific day for the teams working there,” she said.
Victims were also transported to at least two other medical facilities. Most were under the age of 10, tweeted Johannes Bruwer, who heads the ICRC delegation in Yemen.
“Under international humanitarian law, civilians must be protected during conflict,” the organization said in a separate tweet.
Abdul Salam Salah, a rebel spokesman, accused the coalition of a “heinous ugly crime,” saying “they don’t care about human lives.”
Col. Turki Maliki, a coalition spokesman, said the strike targeted rebels who had planned and carried out an attack aimed at civilians in the southern Saudi city of Jizan the previous day. He accused the militants of using children as human shields.
On Wednesday, the official Saudi Press Agency said the kingdom’s air defenses intercepted a missile aimed at Jizan, but fragments from the blast killed one person and injured 11 others.
Saudi Arabia entered the war in Yemen in 2015 after the rebels drove the country’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, from the capital, Sana. The rebels, who are aligned with the kingdom’s arch-foe, Iran, control much of northern Yemen, while Hadi has set up a government in exile in the southern port city of Aden.
The United Nations human rights office estimates that at least 16,000 civilians have been injured or killed in the fighting, most of them through airstrikes. But the actual figure is believed to be much higher.
Aid organizations Thursday demanded an independent investigation into Thursday’s airstrike and other recent attacks aimed at civilians, saying perpetrators must be held to account.
“Even wars have rules, but rules without consequences mean nothing,” Frank McManus, the Yemen country director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “If there is any chance of innocent lives, especially those of children, being lost in an attack, that attack should not take place. Too many civilians have been caught up in this brutal war, and we cannot stand by and let this become the status quo.”
Last week, Yemeni health officials accused the coalition of carrying out airstrikes targeting civilians in the rebel-held port city of Hudaydah, including at a fish market and outside the main hospital. At least 55 people were killed and scores injured in those attacks.
The coalition denied responsibility, saying it follows a “strict and transparent approach” based on the rules international law.
Hudaydah, a key gateway for trade and aid shipments, has become the latest battleground in Yemen’s devastating war, threatening a lifeline that serves more than 20 million people in need — three-quarters of the population.
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