UN Security Council calls for 'credible' probe of Yemen attack that killed children

The UN Security Council is calling for "a credible and transparent investigation" into an attack in northern Yemen that killed a large number of civilians, including children.

Saudi-led coalition airstrike killed a large number of civilians, including children

An injured child rests in a hospital after an airstrike in Saada, Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the country's north killed dozens of people on Thursday, including many children. (Kareem al-Mrrany/Associated Press)

The UN Security Council is calling for "a credible and transparent investigation" into an attack in northern Yemen that killed a large number of civilians, including children.

A statement from the UN's most powerful body was issued by a senior UN official on Friday after a closed briefing and expressed "grave concern" at the latest attacks in Saada province "and all other recent attacks."

The council did not say who was responsible, but the Saudi-led coalition, which has been at war with Houthi rebels in Yemen for three years, said it's investigating.

Karen Pierce, Britain's UN ambassador and the current council president, told reporters "if there's an acceptable, credible investigation then the council will want to consider next steps in the light of that."

"If any investigation that is held is not credible, the council will obviously want to review that," she said.

Rebels back call for probe

Yemen's Shia rebels on Friday backed the UN's call for a probe into the coalition airstrike.

Senior Yemeni rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said on Twitter that the rebels — known as Houthis — welcome the call and are willing to co-operate in an investigation of the strike, which hit a bus carrying civilians, many of them school children, in a busy market in Dahyan district.

The coalition said Friday it would investigate and a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington, Fatimah S. Baeshen, said in a statement the case was referred to the coalition's investigative body.

"The coalition will, as it has always, exert all efforts to preserve civilian lives," she said.

People gather around the site of the airstrike on Friday. Yemen's Shia rebels are backing a UN call for an investigation into the attack. (Kareem al-Mrrany/Associated Press)

The coalition's statement signaled a shift in its earlier stance when spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki defended the attack as a "legitimate military action" and blamed the Houthis for recruiting children and using them in the battlefields as cover.

The coalition had said the attack on Saada was in response to a missile fired by the rebels into the kingdom's south a day earlier. The coalition said it had intercepted and destroyed the missile but its fragments killed one person and wounded 11 others in Saudi's southwestern border region of Jizan.

The Iran-aligned Houthis regularly fire into Saudi Arabia and have previously targeted its capital, Riyadh, with ballistic missiles. They say their missile attacks on the kingdom are in retaliation for air raids on Yemen by the Western-backed coalition.

Dozens of children killed, injured

In a statement after Thursday's airstrike, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged Yemen's warring parties to take "constant care to spare civilians" during military operations and also called for an "independent and prompt investigation."

The United Nations said an exact death toll has yet to be confirmed but initial reports point to more than 60 casualties, with dozens severely wounded. Rebel-run Al-Masirah TV reported at least 51 people, including 40 children, were killed and 79 others, including 56 children, were wounded in the airstrike, citing the Yemeni Health Ministry in the capital, Sanaa, which is under rebel control.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said its team received the bodies of 29 children, all under 15 years old, and treated 48 wounded, 30 of them children.

Following the strike, Al Masirah broadcast horrific images of lifeless bodies of children, covered in blood, and others who appeared severely wounded, lying on hospital stretchers crying and screaming in pain. The authenticity of the footage could not be independently verified.

'Appalling tragedy'

On Friday, Ahmed al-Hamoud, who was traveling from Saada to Sanaa, said a sombre mood prevailed over the province and that coalition planes could be seen flying over it from time to time.

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who has been pushing for peace efforts in the war-torn country, said he was "deeply shocked by the appalling tragedy that claimed so many innocent lives."

Still, he called on the warring parties to "engage constructively" in the first round of consultations scheduled for Sept. 6 in Geneva. The UN children's agency called the attack in Saada "unconscionable" and a "low point in the country's brutal war."

Children's backpacks are discarded a day after the airstrike in Saada, on Friday. (Kareem al-Mrrany/Associated Press)

Impoverished Yemen has been embroiled in the war pitting the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthis since March 2015. Civilians have been enmeshed over the years in the conflict which has killed over 10,000, crippled the country's health system and pushed it to the brink of famine.

Yemen has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22.2 million people in need of assistance.