Helicopter Gunship Opens Fire on Boat Carrying Somalian Refugees, Killing More Than 40 Men, Women, Children

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People carry the body of a Somali refugee killed in an attack by a helicopter while traveling in a vessel off Yemen, at the Red Sea port of Hodeidh. (Reuters)

More than 40 Somali refugees have been killed in an attack on a boat off the coast of Yemen while attempting to flee the country’s brutal civil war.

Coastguard authorities in the Houthi rebel stronghold of Hodeidah said a helicopter gunship attacked the vessel they were traveling on in the Red Sea.

A Yemeni people smuggler who survived the attack said the boat had set sail overnight, aiming to cross to Sudan. Al-Hassan Ghaleb Mohammed said women and children were among his passengers from the port of Ras Arra, along the southern coastline in Yemen’s Hodeida province.

He told the Associated Press their boat had reached around 30 miles from shore when the helicopter gunship approached and opened fire, sparking panic on board. Migrants finally managed to hold up torches to show they were civilians, he said, and the helicopter stopped firing.

Photos that were too graphic to publish showed the bodies of women and men in civilian clothes lying on top of one another in the partially destroyed boat, their belongings splattered with blood. Children were believed to be among the dead.

Mohamed al-Alay, a coastguard official, told Reuters the refugees, carrying official UN documents, were attacked by an Apache helicopter near the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

Houthi rebels accused the Saudi-led air coalition of carrying out the attack, following heavy bombardment in the area, where it accuses Shia fighters of smuggling weapons into Hodeida in small boats.

The International Organisation for Migration said at least 42 people had been killed and dozens injured on the boat, which had around 140 people on board. The survivors, 75 men and 15 women, were taken to detention centers.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it was “deeply distressed” by the casualties and called for all parties in the Yemeni civil war to protect civilians in accordance with international law.

“UNHCR is appalled by this tragic incident, the latest in which civilians continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict in Yemen,” spokesperson William Spindler said. “UNHCR has been following up to provide urgent assistance and support to the survivors and to the families of those deceased.”

The agency warned that conditions in Yemen were continuing to deteriorate, forcing asylum seekers to leave the country either northward or across the Red Sea, including some with the intention of reaching Europe.

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