MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Somalia’s government on Saturday blamed the Saudi-led coalition for Friday’s attack on a boat that killed at least 42 Somali refugees off the coast of war-torn Yemen, calling the assault by a military vessel and a helicopter gunship “horrific.”
Somalia urged the United States-supported coalition to investigate. The boat was packed with dozens of refugees, some of them women and children.
“What happened there was a horrific and terrible problem inflicted on innocent Somali people. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen is responsible for it,” Somalia’s foreign minister, Abdisalam Omer, said on state-run radio. He said Yemen’s government also must give an explanation for the attack and that those responsible must be brought to justice.
Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire in a separate statement called the attack “atrocious” and “appalling.”
Yemen’s Shiite rebels also have blamed the Saudi-led coalition. There has been no coalition comment.
The attack came just weeks after Somalia’s recently elected president, the Somali-American Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, chose to make Saudi Arabia his first official foreign visit overseas.
The attack highlighted the perils of a heavily used migration route running from the Horn of Africa to the oil-rich Gulf, right through Yemen’s civil war.
Laurent De Boeck, the head of the Yemeni office for the International Organization for Migration, has said the agency believes all those on board the boat were registered refugees.
A Yemeni trafficker who survived the attack said the refugees had been trying to reach Sudan. Somalia’s foreign minister on Saturday said their ultimate destination had been Somalia.
The trafficker, Al-Hassan Ghaleb Mohammed, said the boat left from Ras Arra, along the southern coastline in Yemen’s Hodeida province, and was near the Bab al-Mandab strait when the attack occurred.
Mohammed described a scene of panic in which the terrified refugees waved flashlights, apparently to show they were not combatants. He said the helicopter then stopped firing, but only after dozens had been killed.
Video of the aftermath showed dozens of slain migrants, along with others who suffered gunshot wounds, lost limbs, or had broken arms and legs.
The Saudi-led coalition has been heavily bombarding the coast around the port of Hodeida, where it accuses the rebels, known as the Houthis, of smuggling weapons in small boats.
The coalition began striking the rebels and their allies in March 2015, hoping to drive the rebels from the capital, Sanaa, and restore the internationally recognized government. The rebels remain in control of Sanaa and much of northern Yemen, and the conflict, which has killed an estimated 10,000 civilians, is in a stalemate.
Since the beginning of the air campaign, Yemen has been under an air and sea embargo. The coalition is the only party to the conflict with naval and air forces, and rights groups have documented hundreds of airstrikes in which civilians have been killed.
Despite the fighting, African migrants continue to arrive in the war-torn country, where there is no central authority to prevent them from traveling onward to a better life in neighboring oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
More than 111,500 migrants landed on Yemen’s shores last year, up from around 100,000 the year before, according to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, a grouping of international agencies that monitors migration in the area.
The turmoil has left migrants vulnerable to abuse at the hands of the armed trafficking rings, many of which are believed to be connected to the multiple armed groups involved in the war.
Refugees have fled Somalia over its past quarter-century of chaos, desperate to avoid warlord-led clashes, attacks by homegrown extremist group al-Shabab and deadly drought.