Thirty-one Somali refugees were reportedly killed off the coast of Yemen late on Thursday when a helicopter attacked the boat they were travelling in, a coastguard in the Houthi-controlled Hudaydah area has said.
Mohamed al-Alay said the refugees, carrying official UNHCR documents, were travelling from Yemen to Sudan when they were attacked by an Apache helicopter near the Bab el-Mandeb strait.
A sailor who had been operating the boat, Ibrahim Ali Zeyad, said 80 refugees had been rescued after the incident, reports The Guardian.
While the identity of the helicopter was not immediately clear, Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition in the war in Yemen, has US-built Apache A-64 Longbow attack helicopters.
The kingdom’s Al-Madinah class frigates, one of which was damaged in an attack by a Houthi militia in January, is also capable of carrying a single helicopter. Other naval forces operating in the area are also equipped with helicopters, including the US military.
The International Organization for Migration’s spokesman, Joel Millman, told a UN news briefing in Geneva that he was unable to confirm news reports indicating that an Apache helicopter strike was responsible for the attack.
He said: “Our confirmation is that there are dozens of deaths and many dozens of survivors brought to hospitals.”
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Yemen, Shabia Mantoo, confirmed that a number of refugees had been killed in the incident but did not confirm the numbers.
“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 told Reuters by telephone.
Mantoo said that refugees and asylum seekers were moving out of Yemen and heading north because of deteriorating conditions.
The incident occurred amid concerns that the Saudi-led coalition is preparing to launch a wider operation against the port city.
Naval vessels were targeted in the strait last autumn. In October, two service personnel were killed when a United Arab Emirates vessel was hit. Later that month, the USS Nitze and USS Mason came under anti-ship missile fire.
US retaliatory fire destroyed several Houthi-controlled radar sites in and around the port of Hudaydah – the same immediate area where the refugee boat was struck – with cruise missiles. Hudaydah is controlled by Iran-allied Houthi fighters who in 2014 overran Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and forced the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee into exile.
While the Houthis are less well equipped than the Saudi coalition, one of their most sophisticated weapons has been its missile systems.
A 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 at the foot of the Red Sea through which nearly 4m barrels of oil are shipped daily to Europe, the US and Asia.