An airstrike launched by the Saudi Arabian-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 is backed by the United States and supports 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 rebels that borders 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 school to a mosque to mark the end of their summer session when it was hit near the Dahyan market, said Youssef Hadri, a spokesman for the rebel Ministry of Health.
At least 45 students between 6 and 14 years old were killed, along with five of their teachers,Hadri said. The strike also injured at least 87 people, many of them seriously, he added.
He called the attack “a satanic aggression,” saying the coalition “backed by America, has been committing such atrocities since Day 1.”
Yemen’s rebel-run Al Masirah TV broadcast images of burned and bloodied children arriving at a hospital for treatment, one them still wearing a school backpack. Enraged residents loaded bodies and severed limbs into pickup trucks.
“This is the aggressor? This child?” one man yelled at the camera. “Look at their hands!" he said, holding up mangled remains.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a hospital it supports in Al Talh received 30 bodies from the attack. Of the 48 people treated there, about 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 taken to at least two other medical facilities. Most were under the age of 10, tweeted Johannes Bruwer, who heads the ICRC delegation in Yemen.
The organization said it was rushing medical supplies to area hospitals to assist with the influx, adding in a tweet, “Under international humanitarian law, civilians must be protected during conflict."
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.
The rebels known as Houthis have launched many such attacks since Saudi Arabia entered the war in Yemen in 2015 on behalf of the country’s president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. The Houthis, who are aligned with the kingdom’s arch-foe, Iran, control much of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sana, while Hadi has set up a government in exile in the southern port city of Aden.
The United States assists the Saudi-led coalition with weapons sales, intelligence gathering and aerial refueling for its jets, drawing criticism from humanitarian organizations and members of Congress because of the war’s heavy toll on civilians .
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 coalition airstrikes. But the actual figure is believed to be much higher.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the Trump administration was "concerned" about Thursday’s reports but did not have the "full details" yet. She called on the Saudi government to conduct a "transparent" investigation and for the coalition it leads to "take the appropriate measures to mitigate [against] civilian deaths."
Human rights defenders have criticized such investigations in the past, calling them a whitewash. Aid groups Thursday demanded an independent investigation into the 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..”
Last week, Yemeni health officials accused the coalition of carrying out airstrikes on 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 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.
Al Faour is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report from Washington.