KHARTOUM: Nearly 200 people drowned on Tuesday when a boat carrying illegal migrants from Sudan to Saudi Arabia caught fire after four hours at sea, Sudanese officials said.
“One hundred and ninety seven people from neighbouring countries drowned in the Red Sea, inside Sudanese territorial waters, following the burning of a boat that was illegally transporting them to Saudi Arabia,” the semi-official Sudan Media Centre said, citing officials.
“The information (published by SMC) is correct,” a police spokesman told AFP, adding that further details had not yet been received.
SMC quoted authorities in Sudan’s Red Sea state as saying only three people had been rescued, but that the search for more survivors was ongoing.
They said the people-trafficking operation was planned and implemented in the locality of Tokar, which is about 150 kilometres south of Port Sudan, near the border with Eritrea, and that four Yemenis, who allegedly owned the Cuban-flagged boat, had been arrested.
A separate attempt to smuggle 247 migrants, mostly from Somalia, Eritrea, Chad, and Nigeria, also through Sudan’s coastal region of Tokar, had been foiled, according to the same report.
With an 875 kilometre coastline and long borders with Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad and Egypt, Sudan is a key transiting country for many African migrants attempting to reach the Arabian peninsula by boat, or overland to Israel.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates there are more than 100,000 Eritrean refugees in northern Sudan, most of them living in camps along the country’s border with its eastern neighbour.
The violence in Somalia, meanwhile, compounded by severe drought, has forced more than 135,000 Somalis to flee so far this year, including 54,000 people in June alone, according to the UNHCR.
The UN humanitarian office said last week that 10 million people in the Horn of Africa have been hit by the worst drought in 60 years, with some areas on the verge of famine and thousands on the march in search of food and water.