By Andrew Mills, Tiksa Negeri and Milan Pavicic
DUBAI/HARAR, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Saudi Arabian border guards have killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants, including women and children, who attempted enter the kingdom along its mountainous border with Yemen, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.
In a 73-page report, the rights group said Saudi guards used explosive weapons to kill some migrants and shot at others from close range. It compiled testimony from 38 Ethiopians who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023, as well as four relatives or friends of migrants.
Human Rights Watch said attacks against groups of migrants, who used remote mountain tracks to cross into Saudi Arabia by foot, were “widespread and systematic” and that the “killings are continuing”.
A Saudi official, who did not provide their name, said on Monday in an emailed response to questions to the government’s media office that HRW’s allegations were “unfounded and not based on reliable sources.” Saudi authorities have also strongly denied allegations made by U.N. officials in 2022 that border guards systematically killed migrants last year.
The Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa and Houthi officials in Yemen did not respond to requests for comment Reuters sent early on Monday.
A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. had raised concerns about the allegations in the report with the Saudi government and had urged it to undertake a thorough and transparent investigation.
There are an estimated 750,000 Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, according to U.N. studies. Many have fled economic hardship in Ethiopia, which has also seen its northern province of Tigray riven by a brutal conflict in recent years.
The migration route from the Horn of Africa, across the Gulf of Aden, through Yemen and into Saudi Arabia – one of the richest countries in the Arab world – is a well-established corridor for Ethiopian migrants.
HRW said it based its report on witness testimony as well as 350 videos and photos of wounded and killed migrants, and satellite imagery showing the location of Saudi Arabian guard posts. The advocacy group said, however, its researchers were unable to access the stretch of the Yemen-Saudi border where the alleged killings took place.
“People told me that they witnessed killing fields: bodies scattered all over the mountain area…people blown in half,” Nadia Hardman, the report’s author, said in an interview with Reuters.
Hardman said that since 2022 there has been a “deliberate escalation in both the number and manner of targeted killings.”
Reuters independently analysed video clips provided by HRW showing corpses, injured people, the digging of graves and groups of people traversing mountain paths.
Roads, buildings and the shape of mountains matched satellite and terrain imagery, enabling Reuters to verify that the videos were shot at the Yemen-Saudi border. The news agency could not verify when they were filmed.
“I STARTED TO PRAY”
Mustafa Sofian Mohammed, 22, told Reuters his group of 45 Ethiopians were nearing the end of a three-day walk to the border on July 10, 2022 when machine gun and grenade fire erupted from Saudi territory, partially severing his left leg above the ankle.
“I looked around to make sure if it was really happening … That was when I realized I had no leg anymore and then I started to pray,” said Mustafa, without specifying exactly where the incident took place. He said he tied a scarf around his injury and was later rescued by another group of men attempting the border crossing.
Speaking to Reuters in the eastern Ethiopian city of Harar, Mustafa said he was treated in Al Thawra Hospital in the Yemeni capital Sanaa and then flown to Addis Ababa, where his treatment was paid for by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Medical discharge papers from the Hallelujah Hospital in Addis seen by Reuters show he was treated there for an infected amputation wound and that he was admitted as an IOM-sponsored patient.
Mustafa, who was one of the migrants cited by HRW in its report, said he knew of only three others in his group who survived the attack: “The rest are unreachable…only God knows what happened to them.”
Sofian Mohammed Abdulla, Mustafa’s 48-year-old father, confirmed his son’s account. Reuters also reviewed video and photos provided by Mustafa of his partially severed leg he said were taken at hospital in Yemen shortly after the attack. The new agency could not independently confirm this.
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), a global network of civil society organizations and independent experts who support survivors of torture, said it had analyzed the videos and photographs of dead or injured migrants compiled by HRW and found there were “clear patterns” of munitions explosions and gunshot wounds.
The UN Human Rights Office said in an email on Monday that it had received information pointing to the impact of military operations at the border on civilians and has been monitoring the situation “for some time”. It called for the HRW allegations to be fully investigated and for those responsible to be held to account.
“Trying to stop migration using the barrel of a gun is intolerable,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told a briefing in New York, adding that the report raised “very serious allegations”.
In October 2022, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions had said in a letter to Saudi authorities that the U.N. had received reports of the “systematic” killing of 430 migrants at the border in at least 16 incidents between Jan. 1 and April 30, 2022.
A letter issued by the kingdom’s U.N. mission in March 2023 rejected the allegation, saying that Saudi border security regulations “ensure humane treatment…no form of mistreatment or torture is tolerated.”
(Reporting by Andrew Mills in the Gulf Bureau, Tiksa Negeri in Harar, Ethiopia and Milan Pavicic in Gdansk; additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva, Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, and Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; Writing by Andrew Mills; Editing by Daniel Flynn)
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