At least 112 dead after smuggling boat capsizes off coast of Yemen

Saturday, February 17, 2007

SAN'A, Yemen -- 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 112 people drowned, a Yemeni official said Friday.

The boat was among a group of four vessels carrying migrants from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, a U.N. official and a Yemeni human rights activist said.

When it capsized late Monday, smugglers in the other boats forced their passengers into the sea so they themselves could return quickly to shore, said the human rights activist, whose group helped survivors from the capsizing. 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 Shabwa province, east of Aden, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said. Bodies also washed ashore in the region and were buried in several mass graves by residents.

"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, said from the region.

An official in Shabwa's provincial council said between 112 and 115 had been found dead so far. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

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 neighboring Ethiopia, according to the UNHCR.

The boat sunk far off the Yemeni coast, leaving the migrants drifting in the high seas, said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. "The people were in the water for several hours before the Yemeni military came to their rescue," he told reporters in Geneva, where UNHCR has its headquarters.

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.

Conditions on the smugglers' vessels are notoriously poor. Witnesses have previously reported people being thrown overboard.

Yemen has recently increased coastal patrols, forcing smugglers to make the journey across the Gulf of Aden by night, making it more dangerous.

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