WASHINGTON — An August airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that killed at least 51 people, including 40 children, in Yemen last month was “an apparent war crime,” according to Human Rights Watch.
It is the second time in a week an independent organization has suggested atrocities are being committed by Riyadh in its coalition efforts against Houthi forces in Yemen.
“The Saudi-led coalition’s attack on a bus full of young boys adds to its already gruesome track record of killing civilians at weddings, funerals, hospitals, and schools in Yemen,” Willian Van Esveld, HRW’s senior children’s rights researcher, said in a news release on Sunday.
“Countries with knowledge of this record that are supplying more bombs to the Saudis will be complicit in future deadly attacks on civilians,” he said.
Those countries would include the United States, as the Pentagon supports the Saudi war effort with refueling and other measures. The bomb used in the August attack was built in the U.S. and sold to Saudi Arabia.
That attack also wounded 79 others, including 56 children, prompting a United Nations’ calls for an inquiry. Last week the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights said Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners could be guilty of war crimes for their actions in Yemen.
According to its report, the U.N. high commission said there have been 17,062 civilian casualties in Yemen since 2015, including 6,592 dead and 10,470 injured. “The majority of these casualties — 10,471 — were as a result of airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition,” the report said. It said that the Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition could be guilty of rape, torture and other war crimes.
Yemen’s civil war began in early 2015 when Houthi rebels — a minority Shiite group from the north of the country, backed by Iran — drove out the western-backed government and took over the capital, Sanaa. Saudi Arabia intervened almost immediately and now leads a coalition against the Houthi, advised and supported by the U.S., the United Kingdom and other nations.
U.N and humanitarian organizations have reported that 22.2 million Yemenis — out of a pre-war population of 28 million — need humanitarian assistance; that the war has wiped out more than 50 percent of Yemen’s nighttime electricity, critical for maintaining hospitals, water supply systems, and communications; that the fighting has left 8 million Yemenis on the brink of starvation, and produced the largest outbreak of cholera — 900,000 infected — in modern history.
Quoting witnesses, the HRW report said all those interviewed insisted there was “no evident military target in the market at the time.” The children, reportedly aged six to 11, had been on a field trip celebrating graduation from summer school, according to news reports.
Saudi officials continue to insist the school bus was a legitimate target.
Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, said in an interview with CNN that intelligence information showed that the bus was “not a school bus because there is no school at that time when the incident happened.
“We never observed any kids on the bus,” al-Maliki told CNN. “The coalition conducted the attack against Houthi commanders and some Houthi element fighters in that bus.”
Mansour Ahmed al-Mansour, spokesman for the coalition’s investigative body, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), said in Riyadh on Saturday the bus was a “military target.” That was one day after he admitted that “mistakes” had been made over the airstrike and that it had “caused collateral damage”, following its investigation into the attack.
Al-Mansour said Saturday that those responsible should be “punished” and that “an order had been given not to target the bus, which was among civilians, but the order arrived late,” according to news reports.
“The target did not pose an immediate threat and that targeting the bus in a residential area was unjustified at that time,” he said, according to reports.
Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters last week that “the reality is that that battlefield is a humanitarian field, and we recognize the — the tragedy there,” Mattis said. He said the U.S. has not seen or documented any “callous disregard” for innocent lives by the Saudi Arabia-led fight in Yemen.
“We are not going to achieve perfection,” he said. “We also had an Army lieutenant general in Riyadh almost immediately following the early August tragedy to convey our concerns and ask for a swift and complete investigation.”