A doctor treats children injured by an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018. (Naif Rahma/REUTERS)

Aid group calls on Canada to condemn deadly Saudi-led airstrike on Yemeni school bus

A children’s rights international aid group is calling on Canada to condemn an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that targeted a school bus, killing and injuring dozens of Yemeni children Thursday in the rebel-held province of Saada near the border with Saudi Arabia.

The vehicle came under attack as it was driving near a busy market in in Dahyan city, in northwestern Yemen, said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“According to local officials a total of 50 people died and 77 were injured this morning,” said in a Twitter post Johannes Bruwer, the head of an ICRC delegation in Yemen. “Of these, the ICRC hospital in Al Talh received 30 dead and 48 injured, of which the vast majority were children.”

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said while the exact death toll remains to be confirmed, initial news reports indicate that the number of dead could be well above 60, with dozens severely injured.

Many of the children were reported to be under the age of 10, Fore said.

“Attacks on children are absolutely unacceptable,” Fore tweeted on Thursday. “I’m horrified by the reported airstrike on innocent children, some with UNICEF backpacks. Enough is enough.”

‘A terrible tragedy’

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018. (Naif Rahma/REUTERS)

Bill Chambers, CEO of Save the Children Canada, said it’s time for Canada to step up to champion and protect human rights and push for accountability when crimes are committed in conflict.

“The violations of international law that we are witnessing in Yemen – including the recent attacks on children – are a critical instance where Canada’s leadership is needed,” Chambers said.

“Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has said this week that Canada will always defend human rights. Yemen cannot be an exception.”

According to the UN Children’s Fund, since 2015 about 2,500 children have been killed and 3,600 maimed during fighting between pro-government forces backed by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Houthi rebels supported by Iran.

Canada must condemn these attacks and support efforts for an independent investigation of these violations of international law, and lead efforts to hold perpetrators to account, Chambers said.

Today’s attack in Yemen was a terrible tragedy,” Adam Austen, Freeland’s press secretary, said in a statement. “Canada calls for the full respect of human rights, of international humanitarian law and for the protection of civilians.”

Diplomatic row

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland during news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 31, 2018. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

The latest attack comes at a sensitive time for the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which is locked in a volatile diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia over Canada’s public statements criticising the kingdom’s human rights policies.

The oil-rich kingdom has reacted with anger to a series of tweets by Canada’s foreign affairs minister and diplomats, urging Saudi authorities to “immediately” release jailed women’s rights activists.

Saudi Arabia has taken a number of drastic diplomatic and economic measures designed to punish Canada for what Riyadh says is “blatant interference” in its internal affairs, including expelling the Canadian ambassador on Sunday, blocking imports of Canadian grain, and ending state-backed educational and medical programs in Canada, as well as cancelling flights to and from Canada.

In addition, according to Canadian officials, Freeland has reached out to her UAE counterpart for help in mediating the diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia.

While Canada has tacitly supported the Saudi and UAE-led military intervention in Yemen on behalf of the ousted but internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and has continued to sell arms to both countries, it has also been taken aback by the carnage that ensued.

At the September 2017 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Canada co-sponsored a resolution which requested the establishment of a group of eminent international and regional experts to investigate and report on the human rights situation in Yemen and to carry out a comprehensive examination of all alleged violations and abuses of human rights since 2014, according to Global Affairs Canada.

Riyadh has been irked by Ottawa’s call for an international investigation by independent experts.

While all sides in Yemen’s brutal fratricide have been criticized for horrific human rights abuses, the Saudi-led coalition has been singled out for its aerial attacks against critical civilian infrastructure in the rebel-controlled areas, targeting ports, power generation plants, water filtration and sanitation facilities, schools and hospitals.

‘A legitimate military action’

Saudi-led coalition spokesman, Col. Turki al-Malki, speaks during a news conference in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, April 16, 2018. (Hamad I Mohammed/REUTERS)

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel reported that the airstrike targeted and killed Houthi leader Ali Salah al-Fayee, who was allegedly responsible for recruiting and training child soldiers.

Earlier in the day, the official spokesman of the Arab Coalition in Yemen, Col. Turki al-Malki, announced that the coalition launched an operation in Saada against Houthi rebels who on Wednesday fired a ballistic missile on the port city of Jizan in Saudi Arabia, near the border with Yemen.

Al-Malki said the air raid in Saada was “a legitimate military action to target elements that planned and carried out attacks targeting civilians yesterday evening in Jizan that killed and wounded civilians.”

The operation was “implemented in accordance with international humanitarian law and customary rules,” al-Malki added.

“Attacking children is the lowest any party of this conflict can go,” UNICEF Yemen Resident Representative Meritxell Relaño said in a statement. “There is no justification whatsoever to attacking children.”

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