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39 African immigrants forcibly drowned

Over 200 others have gone missing after smugglers forced them to jump from a boat at gunpoint off Yemen's southern coast.

india Updated: May 09, 2006 11:49 IST

At least 39 African illegal immigrants drowned and 212 are missing after smugglers forced them to jump from a boat at gunpoint off Yemen's southern coast, said a UN agency.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Monday that the victims were part of a group of 349 Ethiopians and Somalis crossing from Somalia to Yemen on three boats.

While 98 people made it to the shore, 39 bodies were found near Belhaf on the southern coast of Yemen Sunday, UNHCR said in a statement.

Most of the dead were Ethiopians and Somalis, the agency said.

Survivors told UNHCR workers that one of the boats that had set off from Somalia developed mechanical problems but managed to cross the Gulf of Aden with help from the smugglers on the other two boats.

Close to the Yemeni shore, the faster two boats rushed ahead in an attempt to avoid the coast guards, and quickly dropped their passengers off.

"The smugglers on the third boat, however, could not get close to shore. Not wanting to be left behind with a broken boat, they forced all the passengers overboard at gunpoint," the UNHCR statement said.

"The boat was still in deep sea when they were thrown overboard and only those who could swim managed to reach safety," said UNHCR field officer Mohammed Godboudin.

Every year, thousands of Somali immigrants fleeing violence or seeking a better life arrive in Yemen on boats through the Gulf of Aden, wishing to reach Arab countries or Europe.

Smugglers frequently beat their passengers or force them overboard while still far from shore, sometimes with their hands tied behind their backs.

Yemen has more than 80,000 registered refugees, almost all of them Somalis who have arrived since civil strife began in Somalia in 1991.

From September 2005 until April 2006, a total of 241 boats arrived from Somalia in Yemen - an average of 30 boats a month. Several hundreds of people died during these trips, according to UNHCR.

On Feb 28, smugglers on a boat illegally crossing from Somalia to Yemen forced all its 137 passengers overboard into deep waters of the Gulf of Aden before heading back to Somalia, leaving 33 dead.