Sunday, February 18, 2007

117 Migrants Drowned As Boat Sinks

A boat loaded with more than 200 Somali and Ethiopian migrants capsized in the Gulf of Aden during a treacherous night crossing and at least 117 people drowned, a Yemeni official said. The boat was among a group of four vessels carrying migrants from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, a UN official and a Yemeni human rights activist said. When it capsized late Monday, smugglers in some of the other boats forced their passengers into the sea, picked up the smugglers from the capsized vessel and returned quickly to Somalia, said the human rights activist, whose group helped survivors. The activist spoke on condition his name and organization not be identified because he feared problems with the government. At least 169 survivors made it to shore in the coastal region of Yemen's Shabwa province, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said. Bodies also washed ashore in the region and were buried in several mass graves. A military rescue team buried 29 bodies near the beach and many more washed ashore near a road construction site between Aden and Mukalla. Workers for a construction company reported burying 78 bodies. "The bodies were in a very bad condition, as many of them were missing limbs or mutilated because they were crashing against stones," Mohammed bin Mubarak, a Shabwa resident who helped bury 10 bodies, told Associated Press by telephone.Many of the survivors said they were fleeing violence in Somalia, where government forces recently battled a radical Islamic movement with the help of troops from neighbouring Ethiopia, according to UNHCR. The boat sank far off the Yemeni coast, leaving the migrants drifting in the high seas, said Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesperson. The deaths highlight the plight of thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians who try to escape to the Arabian peninsula each year, many hoping to eventually reach Europe. UNHCR says more than 27,000 fled last year and several hundred died making the perilous crossing. UNHCR noted a recent dramatic increase in people smuggling from Somalia, with more than 1,600 arrivals in Yemen aboard some 20 boats. At least 30 people drowned since mid-January. The organization said survivors report that thousands of would-be Somali and Ethiopian migrants are waiting in the Somali port of Boosaaso. Conditions on the smugglers' vessels are notoriously poor, yet people pay between $40 and $100 (U.S.) to make the risky night voyage across the gulf. Yemen has recently increased coastal patrols, forcing smugglers to make the journey across the rough Gulf of Aden by night, making it more dangerous.

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