“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 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.
Most of the children were under the age of 10, tweeted Johannes Bruwer, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Yemen.
The assault was the latest airstrike against civilians carried out 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 proxy war for regional dominance between the Sunni Muslim coalition and Iran’s Shiite theocracy, which is widely believed to be backing the 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,” the aid group Save the Children said 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,” she said.
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 50 by the afternoon. With more than 77 injured, including some in critical condition, the death toll is expected to rise, he added. The ICRC reported that it was scrambling to send more medical supplies and other assistance to the hospital.
The bus was carrying about 60 students, between the ages of 8 and 14, as well as teachers, said Alhadheri. The group, all part of a summer camp, was 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 said. The airstrike occurred around 9 a.m. as the bus neared the market, he said.
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 southwestern Saudi Arabia.
On Wednesday, Col. Turki al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, 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, Maliki said.
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, the Red Crescent director. “Why would they carry out such an action?”
The United States is helping the coalition, the only party in the conflict to use warplanes, with refueling, intelligence and billions in weapons sales. The coalition mostly uses U.S.- and British-made fighter jets. Human rights groups and Washington Post journalists have seen remnants of U.S.-made bombs at attack sites where civilians were struck. The U.S. assistance has come under sharp criticism from some members of 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 of international law.”
Hodeida has been under siege since June, despite U.N. peace efforts. 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, medicine 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.
Mohammed Ali Ganesh, 52, drove all day Thursday from the capital to Saada. Three of his sons were injured in the airstrike. The two older ones had shrapnel wounds, but the youngest one, Yahya, was in the intensive care unit being treated for injuries to his head, face and lungs.
“I don’t know if he will make it,” said Ganesh, his voice audibly choking over the telephone. “When I went in to see him, he did not recognize me.”
“What have those innocent children done to face such a fate and punishment?”
Raghavan reported from Cairo. Kareem Fahim in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.