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U.N. says 21 Venezuelans missing after boat sinks in Caribbean

GENEVA (Reuters) - At least 21 Venezuelans were missing after their boat sank on the way to the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.

The boat, the “Jhonnaly Jose”, was carrying at least 25 people from the Venezuelan coastal town of Guiria when it capsized in the early hours of Wednesday, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“This tragic incident highlights the extreme risks of sea journeys and other irregular cross-border movements undertaken by refugees and migrants. It also underscores the desperation of those forced to flee their homes and the extraordinary difficulties faced on their journey,” he said.

Over 3 million Venezuelans have fled the South American country since 2014 due to widespread shortages of food and medicine and deteriorating law and order.

Four of the 25 aboard the boat were rescued by the Trinidad and Tobago coast guard after a search and rescue effort carried out jointly with Venezuelan counterparts, and then taken back to Venezuela, Baloch said.

Trinidad and Tobago is situated about 70 km (45 miles) from Venezuela’s northern coastal state of Sucre.

The maritime defense unit of Venezuela’s armed forces said on Twitter later on Friday that Sucre’s coast guard had rescued 10 passengers and that the search was continuing. It said 34 people had been traveling on the boat, and did not mention any deaths.

Venezuela has been in deep political crisis since January when Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled congress, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing President Nicolas Maduro’s 2018 re-election was not legitimate.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Additional reporting by Caracas newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Rosalba O’Brien