HODEIDA, Yemen (AP) — The boat packed with dozens of Somali refugees was more than 30 miles off war-torn Yemen's coast when a military vessel and a helicopter gunship swooped in, opening fire in the dead of night Friday, killing at least 42 people. The attack, which Yemen's Shiite rebels blamed on a Saudi-led coalition, 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.
The coalition has been heavily bombarding the nearby coast around the Yemeni port of Hodeida, where it accuses the rebels, known as Houthis, of smuggling weapons in small boats. There was no immediate coalition comment.
A Yemeni trafficker who survived the attack said the boat was filled with Somali refugees, including women and children, who were trying to reach Sudan from Yemen, which has been racked by conflict for more than two years.
Al-Hassan Ghaleb Mohammed told The Associated Press the boat left from Ras Arra, along the southern coastline in Yemen's Hodeida province, and was 30 miles (50 kilometers) off the coast, near the Bab al-Mandab strait, when the military vessel open fire, followed by the helicopter gunship.
He 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. Mohammed was unharmed in the attack.
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 U.N. refugee agency said on its Twitter account that it was "appalled by this tragic incident, the latest in which civilians continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict in Yemen."
A top official with the U.N.'s migration agency said 42 bodies were recovered from the attack, which took place around 3 a.m. Friday. Mohammed Abdiker, emergencies director at the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, called the assault "totally unacceptable" and said those responsible should have checked who was aboard the boat before firing on it. He said about 75 men and 15 women who survived the attack were taken to detention centers, and some bodies were laid in a fish market in Hodeida because of a lack of space in mortuaries.
Laurent De Boeck, the head of the IOM's Yemeni office, said the boat was carrying between 140 and 160 migrants who had departed from various areas of southern Yemen, including the cities of Aden and Mukallah. He said the agency believes all those on board the stricken vessel were registered refugees.
In the 48 hours before the attack Friday, Hodeida witnessed a series of similar incidents. The Houthis said they shot down a helicopter gunship in the same area a day earlier, without providing evidence. The alleged incident triggered retaliatory airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, including a helicopter gunship assault on a fishing vessel that killed a number of fishermen hours before the strike on the migrant boat.
A Yemeni medical official in Hodeida said only 14 bodies from Friday's assault had arrived so far, adding that women were among the dead. Another 25 wounded people, including some who had lost arms and legs, were brought to the hospital, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
The Saudi-led and U.S.-backed coalition began striking the rebels and their allies in March 2015, hoping to drive the Houthis 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.
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.