Men, women and children mowed down on boat while trying to escape war-torn Yemen
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, yesterday bemoaned the killing of at least 40 Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen late on Thursday when a helicopter attacked the boat they were travelling in.
It is understood that the refugees were carrying official UNHCR documents and were on their way from Yemen to Sudan when they were attacked by an Apache helicopter near the Bab el-Mandeb strait.
The UNHCR said on its Twitter account at least 40 refugees were reported dead. But the International Committee of the Red Cross put the death toll at 33 and said 29 were wounded and other passengers were still missing. It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack. Reuters quoted Red Cross spokesperson Iolanda Jaquemet saying survivors told them they came under attack from another boat at 9pm, despite their crew using lights and shouting to signal that it was “a civilian boat”.
“Nevertheless, it did not have any effect and a helicopter joined in the attack,” she said.
Shabia Mantoo, the UNHCR spokesperson in Yemen, confirmed that a number of refugees were killed. “We are distressed by this incident and understand that refugees were travelling in a vessel off the coast of Hudaydah, which was reportedly impacted during the course of hostilities,” she said.
A sailor who had been operating the boat, Ibrahim Ali Zeyad, said 80 refugees had been rescued.
The International Organisation for Migration said the number of dead could be more than 31.
“We just got information of a helicopter assault on a boat leaving Yemen, we believe for Sudan, full of Somalis,” spokesperson Joel Millman told a news briefing in Geneva.
He said the organisation was aware of 80 survivors brought to hospitals in Hudaydah.
The Red Cross’ Eric Christopher Wyss said: “It was a heartbreaking scene. I saw many men, women and children either killed or horribly wounded.”
The Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Houthi forces in Yemen said it did not conduct any operations or have any engagement in the Hudaydah area on Thursday.
Coalition spokesperson General Ahmed al-Asseri said Hudaydah remained under the control of the Houthis and the port continued to be used for “trafficking people, smuggling weapons and attacks against the line of communications in the Red Sea”.
Hudaydah is controlled by Iran-allied Houthi fighters who overran Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014 and forced the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee into exile.
The Saudi-led coalition was formed in 2015 to fight the Houthis and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who have fired missiles into neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The Bab el-Mandeb is a strategic waterway in the Red Sea through which nearly 4 million barrels of oil are shipped daily.
Major General Ahmed Assiri, spokesperson for the Saudiled coalition, dismissed the accusation, saying that the force had not been involved in fighting in Hudaydah.
“There has been no firing by the coalition in this zone,” he said. The kingdom’s Al Madinah-class frigates, one of which was damaged in an attack by a Houthi militia in January, are also capable of carrying a single helicopter.
Other naval forces operating in the area are also equipped with helicopters, including the US military.
Pentagon spokesperson Adam Stump denied US involvement, saying no US strikes had been conducted in Yemen in the previous 24 hours.
Despite the witness account, details of the incident remained confusing. A port official gave a contradictory account of the incident, telling AFP the boat had docked at the port, and the dead and injured had been hit with light weapons fire.
Images from the aftermath showed Yemeni officials in Hudaydah examining some of the recovered bodies at the city’s port, including men, women and children.
Al-Hassan Ghaleb Mohammed told AP the Somalis on board had been trying to escape from war-torn Yemen and cross the Red Sea to get to Sudan in Africa.
Commenting on the incident, the UNHCR condemned “this tragic incident, the latest in which civilians continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict in Yemen”.
– Staff reporter, with Reuters and Al Jazeera
MASSACRED Bodies of Somali migrants – killed in an attack by a helicopter while travelling in a boat off the coast of Yemen – lie on the ground at Hudaydah City, Yemen, on Friday. A helicopter gunship attacked the migrants on Thursday, killing at least 31 people