(Beirut) – An apparent Saudi-led coalition attack on a boat carrying Somali civilians off the coast of Yemen highlights the need for accountability on the second anniversary of the Yemeni armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. Several witnesses reported that on March 16, 2017, a helicopter fired on the boat, killing at least 32 of the 145 Somali migrants and refugees on board and one Yemeni civilian. Another 29, including six children, were wounded, and 10 more remain missing. Photos of the boat taken the next day show damage consistent with gunfire from an aerial attack.
All the parties to the conflict denied responsibility for the attack. Only the Saudi-led coalition has military aircraft. The Houthi-Saleh forces do not. Somalia, which supports the coalition, called on the coalition to investigate. But the coalition has repeatedly shown itself unable or unwilling to credibly investigate its own abuses.
“The coalition’s apparent firing on a boat filled with fleeing refugees is only the latest likely war crime in Yemen’s two-year-long war,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Reckless disregard for the lives of civilians has reached a new level of depravity.”
One of the boat’s four Yemeni crew members told Human Rights Watch that the boat was about 50 kilometers off the coast of the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, traveling away from Yemen, when it was attacked. That evening the captain had told the passengers to be quiet as they were transiting through “a very dangerous place,” two people onboard told Human Rights Watch. Earlier in the journey a vessel had approached and told the crew to stop the boat, but the boat continued.
Four people aboard the boat said that at about 9 p.m. they saw a helicopter repeatedly shoot at the boat. A Somali woman refugee, 25, who was wounded in the attack, said, “All of a sudden, I saw a helicopter above us. ... They attacked abruptly. … When they kept firing at us, those of us who spoke Arabic kept saying, ‘We are Somalis!’” Another woman said that she was hit by a fragment from an explosive weapon. A crew member and others said a large naval ship also fired on the boat.
After the attack, the boat docked at Hodeida port at about 4:30 a.m. The head of the fishing port, Daoud Fadel, said, “We couldn’t find a place to put the bodies, so we had to put them in the place where we store the fish.” Another witness said that, in addition to those who had been taken to nearby hospitals for treatment, about 15 men were wounded from bullets or fragments during the attack.
Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh forces denied carrying out the attack. The official state news agency of the United Arab Emirates reported that a UAE military source denied that its forces had been involved and welcomed an international investigation into the incident. Coalition members have naval vessels patrolling access to the Hodeida coast, while Houthi-Saleh forces maintain control over the port. The US, which has been carrying out airstrikes in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also denied carrying out the attack.
Under the laws of war, attacks against civilians that are deliberate or reckless are war crimes.
Since March 26, 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has carried out military operations, supported by the United States, against Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The coalition has conducted numerous airstrikes that have unlawfully struck homes, markets, hospitals, and schools.