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Latest update : 2009-09-06

At least 15 people have died when a boat carrying Bulgarian tourists capsized and sank on Lake Ohrid (pictured) in south-west Macedonia.

AFP - Fifteen people, including six Bulgarians, died Saturday when an ageing tourist boat sank within seconds into Macedonia's Lake Ohrid, a popular attraction in the Balkans, officials said.

The Iliden was 200 metres (yards) from shore when it apparently capsized into the deepest lake in the region -- famous for its turquoise waters -- at around 11:00 am (0900 GMT) near a campground outside Ohrid city.

"More than 70 passengers were on the boat," Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska told reporters. "Fifteen perished, four seriously injured were taken to hospital in Ohrid and about 50 survivors are at a local hotel."

The captain of the Iliden was among the dead, Jankulovska said, adding that the vessel was carrying "a group of Bulgarian tourists and their Macedonian guide".

The death toll was liable to rise as search efforts continued.

"Six of the victims have been confirmed to be Bulgarian citizens. But we fear that almost all of the victims of the accident will turn out to be Bulgarians," Bulgarian Health Minister Bozhidar Nanev told national radio.

A Bulgarian aircraft was dispatched to Ohrid to fly survivors home and officials in Sofia blamed overcrowding as the likely cause of the disaster.

Built in Germany in 1924, the Iliden was in good condition, with an operating permit, and insured with Lloyd's of London through 2010, Transport Minister Mile Janakievski said.

It had a capacity of 53 passengers, he added.

Gerard Buittat, a Frenchman who trains police officers in Kosovo under a European Union programme, and who was paying a visit to the region, told AFP he saw the boat go down in less than a minute.

Whilst driving from Ohrid towards the Albanian border, he said, "I saw a boat filled with tourists which, for some unexplained reason, veered like an outboard motor boat to the right and then immediately fell onto its side."

"I got out my camera and took a photo of the boat when it was still on its side," Buittat said. "In the time it took for me to get out of my car, in the space of 30 seconds, it sank."

Residents at the campground 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) south of Ohrid used small boats to go out onto the lake and pluck survivors to safety, witnesses said. The emergency services came soon after to join them.

Macedonian President George Ivanov, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and the interior, transport, defence and health ministers all dashed to the scene, ahead of an emergency meeting of the government in the evening.

Janakievski said that, for "ethical reasons", he was tendering his resignation as transport minister.

Tens of thousands of people visit Lake Ohrid -- about 200 kilometres (120 miles) southwest of the capital Skopje -- every year, making it one of the most popular attractions in the Balkans.

The area is a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site, with Ohrid city -- home to the world's oldest Slav monastery and a priceless collection of icons -- among the oldest human settlements in Europe.

Health Minister Bujar Osmai said those injured in Saturday's disaster were in satisfactory condition, and that autopsies on the dead would be carried out into the evening.

Date created : 2009-09-06