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Apache Helicopter Guns Down Boat Full of Somali Refugees Fleeing Yemen

The incident adds to horrific civilian death toll in Yemen's conflict.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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Refugees crossing oceans to flee war and famine have to contend with the risks drowning, dehydration and other perils on their journey. Now add Apache helicopters to the list.

On Friday, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen.

Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers. Eighty survivors were rescued from the water after the attack and taken to a detention center in Hodieda, Yemen, the International Organization for Migration’s Laurent De Boeck told AP. He added the IOM is liaising with hospitals to ensure the survivors get the care they need.

Refugees crossing oceans to flee war and famine have to contend with the risks drowning, dehydration and other perils on their journey. Now add Apache helicopters to the list.

On Friday, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen.

Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers. Eighty survivors were rescued from the water after the attack and taken to a detention center in Hodieda, Yemen, the International Organization for Migration’s Laurent De Boeck told AP. He added the IOM is liaising with hospitals to ensure the survivors get the care they need.

The boat, filled with refugees attempting to flee war-torn Yemen including women and children, had made it about 30 miles offshore when a helicopter swooped in and opened fire. A local coast guard official from the Houthi-rebel controlled coast of Yemen told Reuters an Apache helicopter attacked the boat, though it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack.

Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab air campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, owns U.S.-made Apache helicopters. A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition said the coalition didn’t operate in the region of the attack Thursday.

The boat was en route to Sudan through the Bab-el-Mandeb, a strait between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

The attack raises the death toll on civil war already infamous for high civilian casualties. Aid organizations and human rights groups lambasted Saudi Arabia for indiscriminately targeting civilians in its bombing campaign.

“UNHCR is appalled by this tragic incident, the latest in which civilians continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict in Yemen,” a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency said.

The conflict has killed over 10,000 people. Some 500,000 Somalis lived in Yemen when the conflict first broke out in 2014. International aid groups worry the Somalis who fled their home country for fear of violence will be displaced yet again if the conflict doesn’t end.

On Wednesday, the U.N. also warned the country is facing one of the world’s worst hunger crises. Humanitarian organizations called on the international community to send more aid to Yemen, where as many as 17 million people could be on the brink of famine.

Photo credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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