Coastguard Mohamed al-Alay said the refugees, carrying official UN refugee agency (UNHCR) documents, were travelling from Yemen to Sudan when they were attacked by an Apache helicopter near the Bab el-Mandeb strait.
A senior official with the UN’s migration agency confirmed later that 42 bodies had been recovered after the military attack on a boat carrying refugees off the Yemeni coast.
Mohammed Abdiker, emergencies director at the International Organization for Migration [IOM] in Geneva, said, however, that various survivors provided conflicting messages about whether the attack came from a military vessel or an attack helicopter that had taken off from the vessel.
Abdiker called the attack, which happened at about 3am, was “totally unacceptable” and that responsible combatants should have checked who was aboard the boat “before firing on it.”
One of the survivors, a Yemeni people trafficker, told the Associated Press his vessel had been hit by fire from a helicopter gunship. Al-Hassan Ghaleb Mohammed said the boat had been about 30 miles off the shore of Yemen when it was attacked.
He added that when the gunship opened fire, panic erupted among the refugees. They finally managed to hold up flashlights and show the helicopter they were migrants. He said the helicopter then stopped firing but only after more than 40 Somalis had been killed.
Despite the depiction of the incident, however, an IOM spokesman in Geneva said he was unable to confirm news reports indicating that an Apache had been responsible for the attack, but added: “Our confirmation is that there are dozens of deaths and many dozens of survivors brought to hospitals.”
The rebel-controlled Saba agency said the refugees had been attacked from the air by the Saudi-led coalition battling the insurgents, but did not provide further details.
Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition in the war in Yemen, has US-built Apache A-64 Longbow attack helicopters.
Maj Gen Ahmed Assiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, dismissed the accusation saying that the force had not been involved in fighting in Hodeida.
“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 spokesman Adam Stump, denied US involvement, saying no US strikes had been conducted in Yemen in the past 24 hours.
Despite the witness account, details of the incident remained confusing. A port official gave a contradictory account of the incident, telling Agence France-Presse 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”.
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Yemen, Shabia Mantoo, told Reuters: “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.”
Mantoo said refugees and asylum seekers had been moving out of Yemen and heading north because of deteriorating conditions.
The incident occurred amid concerns that the Saudi-led coalition was preparing to launch a wider operation against the port city.
A local news agency also reported a sharp rise in the Saudi-led coalition’s air raids on Thursday around the port.
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.
Author: Peter Beaumont