updated 9/10/2008 5:52:45 PM ET 2008-09-10T21:52:45

Smugglers threw two children overboard and forced dozens of other African refugees to swim to shore in the middle of the night, leaving more than three dozen dead, the United Nations and an aid group said Wednesday.

The bodies of 29 refugees washed ashore near Wadi al-Barakin in Yemen on Tuesday after smugglers forced them to jump into the water, according to the international humanitarian medical organization Medecins Sans Frontieres. Most of those who died could not swim, survivors told the aid group.

About 120 passengers had boarded the boat in Somalia, survivors said. Up to 10 died during the journey: Several people were suffocated and three people, two of whom were children, were thrown overboard by the smugglers, the group said.

One unnamed survivor, a 23-year-old Somali, told the group that the boat was old and overcrowded and that the passengers did not receive food or water during the two-day journey.

"In order to intimidate us, they beat us heavily with their belts," he said. "One of the smugglers threw petrol on us and showed off his lighter."

The U.N.'s refugee agency said 74 people survived the journey. It said 26 bodies washed ashore and 20 people were missing. The reason for the discrepancy between the death tolls was not immediately clear.

Dangerous seas
Hundreds of Africans die every year trying to reach Yemen, many of whom drown or are killed by pirates and smugglers in the dangerous waters separating Somalia and the Arabian peninsula. Those who survive the journey register with the U.N. refugee agency and stay in refugee camps in Yemen, while others take jobs in the cities as laborers for less than a $1 a day.

Yemeni authorities have reported a spike in the number of refugees reaching their shores, with 882 Somalis and 12 Ethiopians making the trip in just the last week — double the usual numbers. Slideshow: Somalia in turmoil

The U.N.'s refugee agency warned Tuesday of a sharp increase in refugees fleeing the violence in Somalia. According to UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond, 59 boats brought more than 1,700 people in the course of August.

"That's triple the number of arrivals for August 2007, when 633 people landed in 10 boats," he said, in remarks on the agency's Web site. "Smuggling normally subsides between May and September because of stormy weather."

According to the U.N., at least 25,859 people have arrived in Yemen this year after making the crossing. More than 200 have died and at least 225 remain missing.

On Wednesday, heavy fighting between Ethiopian troops and Islamist-led insurgents killed at least nine Somalis in Mogadishu, witnesses said. The fighting in Somalia's capital followed vows by the strengthening Islamist movement to intensify attacks over the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Analysts say the Islamist movement appears to be strengthening after Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's shaky transitional government chased them from power in December 2006.
Somalia has been at war since clan-based militias ousted a socialist dictator in 1991, then fought each other for power.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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