On Friday, Yemeni Coast Guard spokesman Mohamed al-Alay told media that 42 Somali refugees were killed when an Apache helicopter gunship attacked their boat off the Red Sea coast of Yemen.
UNHCR confirmed that 42 bodies were recovered after the attack, and that 80 survivors were taken to the port of Hodeidah. The refugees gave conflicting accounts regarding whether the attack came from the air or from a surface craft, but Al-Hassan Ghaleb Mohammed, a human trafficker who was running the vessel, told the AP that it had been a helicopter.
The boat was about 25 nm off the coast of Yemen at the time of the attack. Mohammed said that the refugees had shone flashlights at the helicopter when it opened fire; it eventually stopped, but the damage was done. In an unfortunate turn of events, the Somali refugees were trying to flee their first country of refuge: they had settled in Yemen to escape violence in Somalia, and on Thursday they had set out for Sudan to escape the rising violence in Yemen.
If the boat was attacked by an Apache, as Yemeni officials contend, it would point to one of a small number of regional users – the U.S., Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi military is engaged in a campaign to drive Houthi rebels out of Yemen's Red Sea coastal region, and it has used its Apaches in the area before: one was shot down near Najran, Saudi Arabia late last year. However, a Saudi coalition spokesperson told Foreign Policy that its forces were not operating in the area of the attack on Thursday.
The UN Human Rights Commission condemned the attack, describing it as the latest in a string of air strikes against civilians. “UNHCR is appalled by this tragic incident, the latest in which civilians continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict in Yemen,” a spokesperson said in a statement.