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“They shot at us like rain”: Saudi border guards killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants, says Human Rights Watch

Saudi border guards continued to fire “like rain.” Ethiopian migrants try to get to the gulf kingdom YemenHundreds killed since last year, Human Rights Watch said in one report Monday.

The allegations, which a Saudi government source called “unfounded,” point to a major escalation in abuses along the dangerous route from the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians live and work.

A 20-year-old woman from Ethiopia's Oromia region said in an interview with HRW that Saudi border guards opened fire on a group of migrants they had just released from detention.

“They shot at us like rain. When I remember it, I cry,” she said.

“I saw a man calling for help, he lost both his legs. He screamed and said, ‘Will you leave me here? Please do not leave me.' We couldn't help him because we were running for our lives.”

Ethiopian migrants are seen inside a building as they quarantine themselves as they cross Yemen's land to reach Saudi Arabia April 5, 2020 in Dhamar governorate, Yemen. (Getty Images)

HRW researcher Nadia Hardman said, according to a statement, “Saudi officials are killing hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in this remote border area that is invisible to the rest of the world.”

“Spending billions on buying professional golf, football clubs and major entertainment venues to improve Saudi's image should not distract from these horrific crimes,” she said.

The United States on Monday expressed concern about the report and called for a full investigation.

“We have expressed our concerns about these allegations to the Saudi government,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. “We call on the Saudi authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and also to comply with their obligations under international law.”

A Saudi government source told AFP that the claims were unreliable.

“The claims contained in the Human Rights Watch report that Saudi border guards shot Ethiopians while crossing the Saudi-Yemeni border are unfounded and not based on reliable sources,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.

The New York-based group has documented abuses against Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia and Yemen for nearly a decade, but the recent killings appeared to be “widespread and systematic” and could constitute crimes against humanity, it said.

Last year United Nations experts reported “worrying allegations” that in the first four months of 2022 “cross-border artillery and small arms fire by Saudi Arabian security forces killed about 430 migrants” in southern Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen.

In March of the same year, repatriations of Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia began under an agreement between the two countries. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said about 100,000 of its citizens will be sent home over several months.

According to the HRW report, there were no responses to letters sent to Saudi officials.

But the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen, in response to a letter from HRW, have alleged “premeditated killings of immigrants and Yemenis” by border guards.

According to the human rights group, migrants said Houthi forces were working with people smugglers and would “blackmail” them or hold them in detention centers where they would be “abused” until they could pay an “exit fee”.

The Houthis denied working with people smugglers, labeling them “criminals”.

In 2015, Saudi officials mobilized a military coalition to halt the advance of the Iran-backed Houthis, who had seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, from the internationally recognized government the year before.

The war in Yemen has resulted in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, which the UN has described as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with millions in need of assistance.

Many of the abuses described by HRW would have taken place during a ceasefire that came into effect in April 2022 and has largely been kept despite its official end last October.

The HRW report draws on interviews with 38 Ethiopian migrants trying to cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, as well as satellite imagery, videos and photos posted on social media or collected from other sources.

Respondents described 28 “incidents involving explosive weapons,” including attacks with mortar shells, the report said.

Some survivors described attacks at close range, with Saudi border guards asking Ethiopians “which part of their body they would most like to be shot in,” the report said.

“All interviewees described scenes of horror: women, men and children scattered in the mountain landscape, seriously injured, dismembered or already dead,” it said.

Other reports reported of forced rape and beatings with stones and iron bars.

HRW called on Riyadh to end any policy of using deadly force against migrants and asylum seekers and called on the UN to investigate the alleged killings.

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