GENEVA -- Two boats filled with Somalis and Ethiopians capsized off the coast of Yemen after Yemeni patrol boats chased one of them and fired on two other vessels.
At least 17 people drowned and about 140 were missing, the UN refugee agency said yesterday.
The capsizings took place late 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.
The two boats that Yemeni security forces fired on had just offloaded in Yemen and only smugglers were on board, the UN commission said.
The smugglers returned fire, according to Yemeni officials, and two other boats still filled with refugees waiting offshore tried to escape to sea in the darkness.
Officials said one of those two boats capsized after passengers became agitated.
The other boat was pursued by two Yemeni Coast Guard vessels, and a helicopter and was forced to head back to shore. But about 300 yards from the beach, it capsized in rough seas.
Some of the missing are believed to be trapped under one of the capsized boats.
The UN commission said many of the Somalis said they were fleeing the fighting in their country between government forces backed by Ethiopian troops and an Islamic 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 agency said 357 surviving refugees were taken to its Mayfa'a reception center in Yemen, where they were given food and medical assistance.