The United Nations and the Somali government have called on the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen to investigate a deadly helicopter attack on a Somali refugee boat last week. However, the coalition had a different agenda: in a statement on Sunday, it denied responsibility for the attack and called on the U.N. to supervise the nearby port of Hodeidah, which is under the control of Houthi rebel forces. UN control of the port "would facilitate the flow of humanitarian supplies to the Yemeni people, while at the same time ending the use of the port for weapons smuggling and people trafficking," the coalition said.
On Friday, a spokesman for the Yemeni coast guard said that a boat of Somali refugees was attacked by an Apache helicopter some 25 nm off the coast of Yemen. 42 bodies were recovered after the attack, and 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, and Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, suggested that both a vessel and a helicopter were involved.
On Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called for an inquiry into the attack. "Many questions remain unanswered on the circumstances of this horrific event," said Filippo Grandi, head of UNHCR. "We call on all parties to the conflict to make proper inquiries to ensure accountability and to prevent this from happening again."
The Saudi military is one of a small number of operators of the Apache helicopter in the Middle East, and the attack occurred during a higher-than-normal level of Saudi aircraft activity in the area, according to local media. Somalia's foreign minister, Abdisalam Omer, went so far as to blame the Saudi coalition for the incident. "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," he said on state-owned radio. (Somalia is a member of the coalition).
In response, the Saudi coalition said on Sunday that it was "aware of allegations that the attack was carried out by a helicopter and naval vessel belonging to the Saudi-led coalition." However, the alliance denied any involvement: "We can confirm the coalition was not responsible for any attack on a refugee boat on Friday and . . . there was no firing by any coalition forces on Friday in the area of Hodeida," it said.
UNHCR has frequently criticized the Saudi coalition for the high rate of civilian casualties from its aerial bombing campaign in Yemen. Overall, UNHCR estimates that more than two million Yemenis have been displaced by the fighting, in addition to Yemen’s 280,000 foreign refugees, most of whom are from Somalia.