Dozens of children, most believed to be under the age of 10, have been killed after a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a school bus in northern Yemen Thursday.
The bus was hit as it was driving through a market in the rebel-held province of Saada, according to the Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV.
The children were on their way to summer camps, Yahya Sha’em, head of the Houthi-held health office in Saada told CNN.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was sending supplies to ICRC-supported hospitals to support an influx of casualties.
The Saudi-led coalition called the airstrike a “legitimate military operation,” and a retaliation to a Houthi ballistic missile that targeted the kingdom’s Jizan province on Wednesday night, according to Saudi Arabia’s official news agency.
“The targeting that happened today in Saada province was legal military action to target elements that planned and executed the targeting of civilians in the city of Jizan last night, killing and wounding civilians,” the Saudi Press Agency cited official coalition spokesperson Turki al-Maliki as saying.
One person was killed in that attack, Saudi state media reported.
Houthi media broadcast gruesome footage appearing to show the dead bodies of children. Other footage showed a young boy carrying a UNICEF backpack being escorted to a hospital, his face bloodied as medical staff tried to treat his injuries.
Witnesses that CNN spoke to said the attack could be heard from neighboring districts.
Saudi Arabia is facing an international outcry after at least 29 children were among dozens of civilians killed by a US-backed Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a bus in Yemen’s Houthi rebel-held north.
The attack was the latest coalition bombing raid to hit civilians; previous airstrikes have hit markets, schools and hospitals. Humanitarian workers on the ground said the latest incident must shake the world’s conscience about atrocities committed continuing during Yemen’s deadlocked three-year war.
Save the Children, quoting its staff on the ground, said the children were on a bus heading back to school from a picnic at the time of the attack when the driver stopped to get a drink at the market in Dahyan, in Sa’ada governorate.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the few humanitarian institutions helping civilians in war-torn Yemen, said its team at an ICRC-supported hospital in Sa’ada had received the bodies of 29 children, all under 15 years old. It also received 48 wounded people, including 30 children, it said.
“Under international humanitarian law, civilians must be protected during conflict,” the ICRC tweeted.
Abdul-Ghani Sareeh, from the Sa’ada health department, told Reuters the attack had killed 43 people and wounded 63.
The attack was condemned by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who called for “an independent and prompt investigation”.
“The secretary general emphasises that all parties must take constant care to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations,” said a spokesman for Guterres.
The Houthis’ Al-Masirah TV broadcast unverified footage of dead and bloodied children, many still carrying their blue Unicef rucksacks, being transferred to a hospital.
In a statement carried by the official Saudi press agency, the Saudi-led coalition called the strike a “legitimate military action” targeting elements responsible for a Houthi missile attack on the Saudi city of Jizan on Wednesday. “[The airstrikes] conformed to international and humanitarian laws,” the statement said. It accused the Iran-aligned Houthis of using children as human shields.
The coalition, also backed by the UAE, launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 aimed at countering the advances of the Houthi rebels, who are viewed by Riyadh as Iranian proxies, and reinstating the ousted president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The International Rescue Committee said it was appalled by Thursday’s incident and called for an inquiry.
The IRC’s Yemen country director, Frank McManus, said: “Today should be the day the world wakes up to the atrocities going on in Yemen … a bus full of school children cannot be viewed as mere collateral damage. Even wars have rules, but rules without consequences mean nothing. If there is any chance of innocent lives, especially those of children, being lost in an attack, that attack should not take place.”
Unicef’s regional director in the Middle East and North Africa, Geert Cappelaere, asked: “Does the world really need more innocent children’s lives to stop the cruel war on children in Yemen?”
In Washington, a state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called for the coalition to investigate the incident.
“We are certainly concerned about the reports that there was an attack that resulted in the deaths of civilians,” she said. “We call on the Saudi-led coalition to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident.”
Recent fighting in Yemen has focused on the port city of Hodeidah, through which most of Yemen’s aid and food arrives.
Saudi and UAE forces have advanced towards Hodeidah, which is held by the Houthis, prompting an intensification of Houthi missile attacks on Saudi targets. Two Houthi missile attacks on oil tankers off the Yemeni coast in recent weeks led to Saudi Arabia temporarily suspending oil shipments through the strategic shipping lane of Bab al-Mandeb.
The Saudi-led coalition was accused of carrying out airstrikes on 2 August near a fish market and hospital in Hodeidah that killed 55 people and injured 130 more.
The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that since June, when fighting around Hodeidah escalated, its partners in the area had registered 50,500 displaced households.
“So many people have died in Yemen – this conflict has to stop,” said Lise Grande, the UN’s Yemen humanitarian coordinator.
Helen Lackner, author of Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State , said any escalation of war in Hodeidah would be catastrophic.
“From the humanitarian point of view, [any escalation of war in Hodaidah city] will be a disaster. It will cause massive worsening of disease, cholera, of death, or hunger,” she said. “The remaining population in Hodaideh, which must be at least 400,000 people, are going to have an extremely bad time because street-by-street fighting plus airstrikes on low-quality cement buildings is going to be really damaging.”
It carried out 258 airstrikes on Yemen in June alone, nearly a third of which hit residential areas, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent group collecting statistics about the conflict.
The situation in Yemen has been described as the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Between January and May, aid agencies helped 7.5 million people, the OCHA said this month. The Houthis also stand accused of causing civilian deaths.
According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the UK has licensed £4.7bn worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since 2015, including £2.7bn worth of aircraft, helicopters, and drones, and £1.9bn worth of weapons systems such as grenades, bombs and missiles.
Andrew Smith, from the organisation, said: “This atrocity cannot be ignored. The UK government has been utterly complicit in the destruction. It has armed and supported the Saudi-led coalition right from the start. The death toll has spiralled and the humanitarian crisis has only got worse, and yet the arms sales have continued.”
Fabian Hamilton, the shadow minister for peace and disarmament, called on Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt to suspend all arms export licences to Saudi Arabia until a ceasefire is agreed in Yemen. “The idea that British weapons could have been used in this attack, in which innocent children have died, is sickening,” he said.