13 African refugees drown in US Navy rescue attempt

African refugees were receiving humanitarian supplies from the US Navy when their skiff capsized off the Somali coast. The number of refugees fleeing the Horn of Africa has skyrocketed in recent years.

Thirteen refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia drowned Monday when their skiff capsized while it was receiving humanitarian assistance from the United States, the US Navy said today in a statement.

The Navy said it was able to save 61 other refugees from the boat that capsized off the coast of Somalia. They are among the tens of thousands of refugees from the Horn of Africa who had fled from deteriorating security conditions, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported in the past. In 2007, "tiny fishing vessels carried 26,000 men, women, and children – a record number – from Somalia to Yemen." In 2009, that number rose to 74,000 people, according to the UN.

In the latest incident, the USS Winston S. Churchill on Sunday first identified a skiff drifting in the Gulf of Aden with 85 refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia.

"Using a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB), Churchill crew members boarded the skiff and immediately rendered assistance, providing food and water to the skiff's passengers," according to the statement posted on the US Navy website.

The RHIB then began towing the skiff toward the coast of Somalia. Later, "while transferring humanitarian supplies to the skiff, the passengers rushed to one side and the skiff began taking on water, quickly capsizing and sinking rapidly, leaving all 85 passengers in the water," the statement said, adding that 13 people drowned.

The incident happened as the International Contact Group for Somalia was concluding a two-day conference in Madrid, pledging to boost the African-led peacekeeping force in Somalia. About 900 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi will join the 7,100 troops currently supporting the beleaguered government.

An additional call came during the meeting for the European Union to contribute troops. "If African countries are willing to send their soldiers, from Spain's point of view it would be logical for other international players including the European Union to contribute toward achieving a deployment with that number of soldiers," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told a news conference Tuesday.

The intended destination of Monday's capsized skiff was unknown, though a common destination is Yemen. But as the Monitor reported in 2007, not only innocent refugees have risked their lives crossing the Gulf of Aden.

Among the latest wave of refugees are rank-and-file members of Somalia's defeated Islamists, and now ousted moderate UIC leaders are also seeking refuge in Yemen, sparking concern from Yemeni officials and Western diplomats that Al Qaeda-linked radical Islamists are also using these well-worn human-trafficking routes to escape from Somalia to the Arabian Peninsula.

"We are concerned that terrorist operatives will try to escape Somalia and establish safe haven elsewhere," says one Western diplomat in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. "Governments in the region, including Yemen, share that concern. They are doing what they can to prevent suspected terrorists from setting up a base in their country."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.