"One hundred and ninety seven people from neighboring countries drowned in the Red Sea, inside Sudanese territorial waters, following the burning of a boat that was illegally transporting them to Saudi Arabia," Sudan Media Centre cited a Sudanese official as saying.

Sudanese authorities said only three people had been rescued, stating that efforts to find survivors were underway, AFP reported on Tuesday.

Four Yemenis who were thought to be the owners of the Cuban-flagged boat have been arrested in connection with the incident, officials said.

Sudanese authorities added they had foiled a people-trafficking plan that aimed at transferring 247 immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea, Chad, and Nigeria through Sudan's coastal region of Tokar.

Somali refugees, fleeing violence in their country, often try going to Saudi Arabia via the sea with the help of smugglers. Many end up first in the kingdom's poor southern neighbor Yemen which is closer to Somalia.