Saudi-led coalition admits ‘mistakes’ in air strike that killed dozens of Yemeni children
The coalition has faced criticism for its campaign of air strikes that has killed civilians and destroyed hospitals and markets
In a rare admission, a US-backed Saudi-led coalition accepted responsibility for an air strike last month on a school bus in northern Yemen that killed scores of people, including at least 40 children.
The statement by the coalition called the attack unjustified and vowed to punish those involved.
The coalition said an internal investigation had “concluded that there were mistakes made in abiding by the rules of engagement”.
The coalition expressed “regret for these mistakes, and offers its condolences and solidarity with the families of the victims and wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured.”
The apology on Saturday was as striking as it was unique in a conflict that has now entered its fourth year, where the Saudi-led coalition is seeking to oust Houthi rebels and restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government.
More than 17,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the war began, mostly by air strikes, deepening the world’s worst humanitarian crisis where millions are suffering from hunger, disease and displacement.
The concession followed mounting pressure by the United States and its allies for the coalition to fulfil promises to better protect civilian lives.
Last month, the United Nations released a scathing report accusing all parties – but particularly citing coalition air strikes – of possibly committing war crimes in Yemen. The coalition rejected the report’s findings.
Hours after the report’s release, US Defence Secretary James Mattis publicly declared that continued military support to its allies in Yemen “is not unconditional” and hinged on improved efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
The Pentagon has been assisting the coalition with refuelling warplanes, intelligence sharing and billions of dollars in weapon sales.
The apology also comes ahead of UN sponsored negotiations in Geneva this week involving all the parties in Yemen, marking the first effort to bring an end to the conflict in more than two years.
The coalition had initially claimed that the August 9 air strike in Saada Province was “a legitimate military action” against Houthi rebels who fired a ballistic missile into a border city in southwestern Saudi Arabia a day earlier.
The missile attack left one civilian killed and 11 wounded, the coalition said. It also claimed the rebels were using children as human shields.
Speaking to reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Lieutenant General Mansour al-Mansour, a legal adviser for the coalition’s internal investigations body, said intelligence had indicated that the bus was carrying rebel leaders, which would have made it a legitimate target.
But delays in executing the attack led to the civilian casualties, describing them as “collateral damage”.
Witnesses on the ground said the bus was carrying children returning from a summer school trip.
The coalition said it would begin the legal process to “hold those who committed mistakes” accountable and also made plans to compensate the Yemeni victims. It further pledged to do a better job in preventing civilian deaths.
“The coalition will continue to review the rules of engagement, and seek to improve it in ways that can ensure those mistakes are not repeated in accordance with lessons learned from previous operations,” the statement read.
Additional reporting by Associated Press