The UAE aid ship Swift was attacked in the Bab Al Mandab strait off the coast of Yemen while returning from Aden. Image Credit: WAM

Abu Dhabi: The crew members of a UAE aid vessel attacked by Al Houthi militia in Yemen last week said they never expected that the militia would target a ship carrying humanitarian aid.

Speaking exclusively to Gulf News, crew members of ‘Swift’, said the ship had carried 5,600 tonnes of food and medical supplies that were dropped off in Yemen.

“We never thought we would be subjected to such an assault by militias. We are providing humanitarian assistance by transporting medical and food supplies for the Yemeni people caught in the midst of the ongoing conflict,” said 34-year-old ship crew member Ajit Singh.

The vessel was also being used to move wounded civilians for medical treatment outside the country.

Shenjo Jacob, a 27-year-old Indian cook, said: “We were terrified by the sudden attack and heavy gunfire, taking into account that it’s a civilian vessel carrying aid. We never expected such (an) assault on civilians.”

The aid ship is owned by the National Marine Dredging Company in Abu Dhabi and leased by the Arab Coalition working to restore the internationally recognised Yemeni government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The ship was attacked while sailing through the Bab Al Mandab Strait off the coast of Yemen, returning from the port of Aden. The Bab Al Mandab Strait connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.

Around 25 crew members were rescued from the ship. They recalled the critical moments they went through at sea.

“I suddenly heard a very loud explosion. While trying to escape, I saw collapsing parts from the ship and some crew members bleeding,” said 31-year-old Indian assistant mechanic Deepak Singh.

“We were surrounded by fire and there was heavy firing towards us, so we crawled on the floor and tried hiding behind the cargo,” he said.

“The ship’s captain was engaged in sending out distress and emergency calls and seeking help while rescue boats in the vessel were being set up,” he explained.

Al Houthis initially attacked the vessel by firing a shell that caused a fire on-board, and then came on speedboats and opened heavy gunfire.

Crew members were surrounded by fire due to the explosion on-board and constant firing of shots for about an hour and a half.

“We tried extinguishing the fire, but a carbon dioxide tank (CO2) was attacked, so we had difficulty with breathing and vision,” said 23-year-old Ukrainian mechanic Dennis Kogram.

B. Singh, a 30-year-old Indian mechanic, said: “I sustained a wound above my left eye, when a part of the ceiling fell on me right after the explosion.”

Shailendra Kumar, 33, who is the ship’s Indian assistant navigator, said, “The ship was attacked and we heard a loud explosion en route to the UAE, I sustained facial injuries due to the collapse of parts of the ceiling on me.”

The attack was described as a “dangerous indication” in a statement released by the command of the Coalition Forces supporting the legitimate government in Yemen.

Alexander Lukiyano, a Ukrainian mechanic, was sleeping when a metal cabinet fell on his head and he fell off his bed. “The corridors were full of smoke as I tried leaving my room and communicating with the crew members. We rushed to pick up our personal belongings and head to the helipad, when we were suddenly attacked by heavy gunfire from all sides, so we sought refuge in the engine room,” Lukiyano explained.

“This is not my first journey on-board a relief and humanitarian aid supply vessel to Yemen,” he added.

Saqil Jijoy, a 26-year-old Indian mechanic, said the majority of crew member were asleep when the first shell was fired. “We witnessed very critical and difficult moments, up until the rapid rescue intervention by the Coalition Forces,” he said.

Jamshir M., a 31-year-old Indian electrician, recalled the difficulty they faced in reaching the ship’s deck because of heavy smoke in the corridors and the gunfire.

As the crew members tried to seek shelter on the deck, the situation was getting increasingly dangerous. “The aggressors were firing heavy rounds at crew members. Our lives were in danger, but the Coalition rescue teams intervened just in time,” said 27-year-old Indian steward Ramlu Rao.

The attack intensified as the crew members tried to escape and jettison the ship.

“While heading to the ship deck looking for exits to flee the vessel, speed boats fired heavy gunshots towards us; until rescue teams arrived and took us to a safe place,” said 23-year-old Ukrainian mechanic Fitsis Larg Lisyatko.

“I’ve never witnessed an assault by militias on a civilian vessel carrying humanitarian and relief aid to the Yemeni people,” said 34-year-old Polish First Officer Mahao Topavoski. “We were rescued by the Coalition Forces vessel to a secured area close to the attack site,” he said.

“We had difficulty fleeing the vessel via the emergency staircase, because it was wrecked and heavy smoke filled the vessel,” said 31-year-old Filipino ship tower observer Elven Tormen, who was asleep when the attack woke him up. “I thought it was a collision with another ship,” he said.

The Coalition command announced that it embarked on a rescue operation in the early hours of Saturday.

“The rescue operation was extremely difficult, as it was very dark and there was heavy smoke on-board the vessel, with constant firing from speedboats,” said Topavoski.

“There were no critical injuries; three crew members sustained mild injuries,” he added.

Coalition air and naval forces had started pursuing and targeting the boats, which carried out the attack.

The aid vessel has a length exceeding 100 metres and holds over 5,000 tonnes of cargo.

The wrecked vessel has been towed to a UAE port. An investigation is under way by the Coalition forces.

According to the Coalition statement, the vessel was on a routine trip to the city of Aden to deliver humanitarian and relief aid and evacuate wounded civilians for medical treatment. The attack was condemned by the Command of the Coalition Forces.

The UAE military is involved in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition’s Operation Restoring Hope to restore the legitimate government in Yemen. The UAE is supporting its role with humanitarian assistance for Yemenis caught in the conflict.

The Yemeni government denounced the attack.

Khalid Al Ameri, National Marine Dredging Company representative, told Gulf News that the company’s operation room was alerted that one of its vessels was on fire in Bab Al Mandab Strait. “Initially, we had no details on the incident, so the UAE Navy and Coalition Forces Supporting Legitimate Government in Yemen were notified,” he said.

“It was apparent that Al Houthi militias and (ousted president Ali Abdullah) Saleh forces targeted the civilian vessel,” he said.

About 25 crew members of Ukrainian, Indian and Polish nationalities were on-board, he added.

“Coalition Forces rescued crew members and three [of the crew] were admitted to a hospital. Two of them have been discharged after recovery, while one crew member remains in the hospital,” Al Ameri said.

— With inputs from Asma Samir, Staff Reporter