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Death Toll Continues to Mount in Gulf of Aden

The United Nations refugee agency reports 16 people have drowned in the Gulf of Aden over the weekend in two separate incidents involving smuggling boats sailing from Somalia. The UNHCR says these tragedies are continuing to mount.

In the first of the two tragic events, survivors report the boat capsized early Saturday night when the smugglers began to push passengers over board into the waters off the coast of Yemen. The boat, which departed Friday from a village near the Somali port of Bosasso, was carrying 44 people.

The passengers say the smugglers began forcing people into the sea as they were approaching land. They say frightened passengers moved towards one side of the vessel causing it to capsize.

U.N. refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says 34 passengers made it to shore, seven bodies were recovered and buried. He says another three African nationals are still missing and their status remains unknown.

"The second boat, reportedly carrying 42 Somalis, reached the shore of Yemen early Sunday morning after having sailed for almost a day. Fearing detection by the Yemeni authorities, the smugglers forced passengers to swim to shore," said Mahecic. As a result, three people drowned and three others are missing and presumed dead. Thirty people managed to swim to shore, while six others are reported to have remained onboard with the smugglers," he said.

The U.N. refugee agency says Somalis desperate to flee war, drought and poverty in their country continue to risk their lives by taking the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden.

Mahecic says in the past five days, 17 boats carrying 835 people arrived in Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa, a region beset by conflict, political instability, famine and drought.

He says some 36,000 Africans reached the shore of Yemen between January and August. He notes this is an increase of 33 percent over the same period last year.

The UNHCR reports more than 50,000 people arrived in Yemen on smugglers' boats in 2008. During the same period, it says some 590 people drowned and 359 others are missing at sea and presumed dead.