WASHINGTON – A Navy warship was providing humanitarian supplies to passengers aboard a broken-down boat off the coast of Somalia on Monday when the boat suddenly capsized, killing at least 13 passengers.
Another eight passengers were still missing, Navy officials said.
The failed rescue was the latest incident involving U.S. military personnel in Somali waters, where deteriorating security conditions have encouraged piracy and produced a flood of refugees trying to flee to Yemen. Most cross the Gulf of Aden in rickety and overcrowded vessels run by smugglers.
According to the Navy, a skiff with 10 Somalis and 75 Ethiopians on board had departed Somalia and was headed north when its engine broke down in the Gulf of Aden. It was spotted Sunday by a Korean vessel, which alerted international authorities.
The USS Winston S. Churchill, a Navy warship on patrol as part of a multinational anti-piracy task force, responded by sending food and water to the stranded passengers. The Navy crew tried unsuccessfully to restart the boat's engine, then began towing it back to the Somali coast using a rigid-hulled inflatable boat.
Navy personnel said they were transferring humanitarian supplies to the skiff Monday morning when the passengers rushed to one side and the boat overturned, throwing all 85 passengers overboard.
The Navy was expected to review the incident to determine whether proper procedures were followed.
Details of the account were provided by the Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain. Spokesman Lt. John Fage said he could not confirm that the skiff's passengers were refugees or where they were headed, other than north from Somalia.
Fage said the surviving passengers were being cared for aboard the Churchill ship.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 74,000 Africans, mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia fled to Yemen as refugees in 2009.
The region also is known as a haven for pirates. Earlier this month, Marine commandos stormed a pirate-held cargo ship off the Somalia coast, taking nine prisoners without firing a shot. It was the first time the international task force has launched a boarding raid.