Two boats filled with Somalis and Ethiopians capsized off the coast of Yemen as they were being pursued by Yemeni coast guard patrols who had opened fire. At least 17 people drowned and some 140 were missing, the UN refugee agency said.
The incident occurred late on Wednesday in the Gulf of Aden when Yemeni authorities spotted four boats smuggling 515 people approaching the coastline, the Geneva-based UN High Commission for Refugees said.
Yemeni authorities opened fire on two of the boats after they had reportedly offloaded all of their passengers, the agency said on Thursday.
The smugglers returned fire, according to Yemeni officials, and the two other boats, which were waiting offshore, tried to escape to sea.
One of the fleeing boats capsized after passengers moved suddenly to one side, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters. It was not clear whether the boat was being fired upon by Yemeni authorities at the time.
The other boat overturned as it was being escorted to shore by Yemeni coast guard vessels and a helicopter.
A Yemeni coast guard official said 17 people were detained in the incident and 140 were missing. He confirmed that the coast guard fired at the boats, saying this was done to stop them from fleeing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Some of the missing were believed trapped under one of the capsized boats.
The UNHCR said many of the Somalis claimed they were fleeing fighting in the central part of their country between government forces backed by Ethiopian troops and an Islamic movement's militia. But the boats were launched from a relatively peaceful area of northern Somalia, from where a steady stream of economic migrants has set off in recent years. Reaching northern Somalia across the front lines would have been difficult.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, indicated some may have been fleeing persecution and violence while others may be poor migrants who were seeking better economic conditions.
UNHCR said 357 surviving refugees were taken to its Mayfa'a reception center in Yemen where they were given food and medical assistance.
Yemeni authorities were searching for survivors, the UNHCR said. The agency said Yemeni officials claimed to have captured all 17 smugglers and their four boats.
On Wednesday, UNHCR said it was preparing for a possible mass flight of refugees from Somalia to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. The agency has asked neighboring countries to provide sanctuary to civilians fleeing the fighting.
Earlier this month, two people were killed when Yemeni authorities fired on smugglers' boats.
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