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Around 200 missing after boat accident


Latest update : 2009-09-11

Eight bodies have been found but around 200 people are still missing after a boat sank near Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown on Tuesday, government officials have said. As many as 300 people, including many children, may have been on board.

AFP - Dozens of bodies washed ashore or were dragged from a ferry which sank off Sierra Leone in a storm but more than 200 people, including many children, remained missing feared dead, officials said Thursday.

Police said only 37 people were known to have survived after the ferry overturned and sank in just a few minutes after the storm suddenly blew up.

But estimates of the numbers on board ranged from 268 given by police spokesman Ibrahim Samura to more than 300, a figure given by Deputy Transport Minister Osmond Hanciles.

The ship sank Tuesday night southeast of the capital Freetown.

Divers who located the sunken vessel Thursday said many bodies may be trapped inside the wreckage. Witnesses and officials said 34 bodies had been brought out or washed ashore.

The ferry was overwhelmed by torrential rains and heavy seas and sank in a matter of minutes, survivors said.

Alfred Yanka, a senior local official in the village of Shenge near where the boat sank, said the vessel had been located by divers at Monkey Island, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Freetown.

"We are busy trying to recover more bodies," Yanka told AFP by phone. Officials said heavy rains were hampering the search.

The vessel was on its way from Shenge in the south of the country to Tombo, a fishing port south of Freetown.

Relatives of some survivors bitterly criticised what they said were long delays in mounting a rescue.

Musu Conteh, a parent of one of the missing children, told journalists it took 10 hours for authorities to mount a search after a survivor reached shore on a five-gallon plastic container and raised the alarm.

Survivors said the boat was carrying many parents and their children who were travelling to schools and colleges in Freetown at the start of the academic year.

"The official list showed 241 passengers on board and these were only those who had cargos on board and totally excluded the number of school children that were aboard," Hanciles told AFP.

"It is possible that there were over 300 people on board," the deputy minister added.

A trader who survived the disaster, Sarian Kamara, told AFP by telephone from hospital in Tombo, where the ferry had stopped, that the accident happened "within minutes when the storm struck. I'm thankful to be alive."

"The boat was tossed around like a piece of paper," said another survivor, Alimamy Bangura.

Information Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said the circumstances leading to the accident "will be thoroughly investigated."

"President Ernest Koroma feels very sad about the incident and he wants it to be known that the military and the navy did all that they could to make sure they took part in the effort to rescue the passengers. We are sending the condolences of the country to all," he added.

Samuel Bangura, harbour master of Tombo, said "overloading may have been responsible for the disaster as the boat had huge drums of palm oil, bags of rice, kolanuts and other goods on board."

The boat had made several stops on the way to pick up passengers from at least 10 coastal villages when it capsized off Shenge, near the Plantain islands.

Boat accidents are frequent during the West African country's rainy season, and locals say many vessels used to ferry passengers around the islands lack basic security equipment like life vests.

On September 26, 2002, 1,953 people died when the ferry Joola capsized in a storm off Gambia along the same West African coast.

Date created : 2009-09-10