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Reuters — Sept 2, 2018

Yemen school bus strike victims. Click to enlarge

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has admitted an air attack in August that killed dozens of people, including children travelling on a bus, was unjustified and pledged to hold accountable anyone who contributed to the error.

The rare concession follows mounting international pressure, including from allies, to do more to limit civilian casualties in the three-and-a-half-year civil war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the already impoverished country to the brink of famine.

The western-backed alliance fighting the Iranian-aligned Houthi group said at the time that the 9 August air strikes at a market in Saada province had targeted missile launchers used to attack southern Saudi Arabia a day earlier and accused the Houthis of using children as human shields.

The Joint Incident Assessment Team, an investigative body set up by the coalition, said on Saturday that the strikes had been based on intelligence indicating the bus was carrying Houthi leaders, a legitimate military target, but delays in executing the strike and receiving a no-strike order should be further investigated.

“There was a clear delay in preparing the fighter jet at the appropriate time and place, thus losing [the opportunity] to target this bus as a military target in an open area in order to avoid such collateral damage,” JIAT legal adviser Mansour Ahmed al-Mansour said in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

“The team believes that the coalition forces should immediately review the application of their rules of engagement to ensure compliance.”

The coalition later announced that it accepted those findings and pledged to hold accountable anyone who was proven to have made a mistake.

“The joint forces command of the coalition expresses regret over the mistakes, extends its sympathies, condolences and solidarity to the families of the victims,” said a statement carried by the Saudi state news agency SPA.

The coalition said it would coordinate with the Yemeni government to compensate victims and would continue reviewing the rules of engagement to prevent the repeat of such incidents.

The US military welcomed the move and said it appreciated the coalition’s decision “to take legal measures to ensure accountability and make the necessary improvements to its rules of engagement to prevent such a tragedy in the future”.

In an unusually strongly worded statement, the UK foreign office expressed serious concern about the scale of the Yemen death toll in August and said it would be reviewing the conclusions of the internal coalition inquiry admitting culpability for the attack on 9 August.

The UK said it expected an equally prompt inquiry into two other controversial attacks in August. The foreign office statement expressed “serious concern at the tragic loss of life in Yemen over the last month. In the first two weeks of August alone, over 400 Yemenis lost their lives, including young children, and many more continue to face egregious violations of their basic human rights.

“We are also deeply concerned by the tragic incidents of 2 August, 9 August, and 23 August in which so many Yemenis were killed. We offer our sincerest condolences to the families of the victims.”

The statement did not propose any suspension of UK government arms exports licences to Saudi Arabia – step ministers would only take as a last resort given the likely diplomatic consequences. Canada found itself the subject of a Saudi disinvestment programme after it tweeted criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record.

Last week, a UN panel of human rights experts said that some coalition air strikes may constitute war crimes. The US secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, said US support for the Saudi-led coalition was not unconditional but suggested the US would continue to support the alliance as it works to reduce fallout on civilians.

The UN has convened talks in Geneva on 6 September, the first effort to negotiate the war in more than two years.

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