200 refugees killed by fire on smugglers' boat

About 200 trafficked people, most of them thought to be Somali migrants fleeing their country's devastating drought, have died after their boat caught fire off the coast of Sudan.

Just three of the passengers on the boat, which is thought to have been heading to Saudi Arabia, survived the blaze, the Sudanese state news agency reported yesterday. The agency put the exact death toll at 197.

Four Yemeni nationals who owned the Cuban-flagged boat, which had set sail from Sudan's Red Sea State, were subsequently arrested in Sudan. The boat had been at sea for four hours when it caught fire, the Sudanese report said. There were no details on how the blaze began.

The Red Sea is a notorious smuggling route for Yemeni and Saudi traffickers, who offer poor African refugees a route to Saudi Arabia. Their boats are frequently unseaworthy. Since 2008, well over 1,000 people have failed to survive the crossing, according to the UN.

The humanitarian crisis in Somalia, has been compounded recently by a devastating drought, the worst experienced in the region for 60 years. The severity of the crisis was further underlined yesterday when the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab, which controls large swathes of the country, lifted a long-standing ban on "anti-Muslim" foreign-aid groups.

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