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200 feared drowned as migrant boats sink

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  • Two boats sank while smuggling migrants from Somalia to Yemen
  • UNHCR says about 1,000 migrants have lost lives since September
  • Civil war in Somalia causing wave of migrants from Horn of Africa
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(CNN) -- Around 200 Africans migrants are feared dead after two boats they were traveling in sank off the coast of Yemen, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday.

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Somali smugglers prepare fishing boats for the trip to Yemen in September.

At least 58 people -- all Ethiopians except for four Somalis -- are confirmed dead and a further 37 remain unaccounted for when their vessel capsized in the Gulf of Aden Saturday, the agency said in statement.

The following day, a second boat carrying 270 people broke into three pieces after hitting a rock close to the Yemeni coast, the statement said.

At least 173 people made it to shore, but many of the remaining people are feared to have drowned, including several children, it added.

Survivors were treated at the scene by medical staff from the international relief agency, Doctors Without Borders.

Survivors from the first vessel told UNHCR officials that smugglers turned off the boat's engine when "suspicious" lights were seen at sea. As smugglers argued about their next course of action, one tore a protective tarpaulin in anger, allowing water into the boat.

Panic ensued and the boat capsized and sank, the survivors told the UNHCR.

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Survivors of the second boat said their vessel hit a rock as smugglers maneuvered to avoid a Yemeni coastal patrol.

In the past four months, the U.N. agency said there had a massive increase in the numbers of refugees making the treacherous journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen.

From September to December around 1,000 migrants are believed to have lost their lives making the crossing, the agency said.

So far this year more than 1,400 people have died while more than 28,300 have made it ashore as they flee poverty and rising violence in the region caused in large part by the civil war in Somalia, it added.

Somalia has been torn apart by ongoing battles between Islamic insurgents and Ethiopian troops who invaded the country last year to oust the insurgents from power.

The Ethiopians -- backed by Somali government troops -- have been accused of the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the capital Mogadishu.

According to U.N. figures, some one million people have fled their homes, including 60 percent of Mogadishu's population.

Somalis reaching Yemen get automatic refugee status because many are fleeing violent conflict, though not all apply for it. Ethiopians are not automatically considered refugees, but can have cases heard individually. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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