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Call for inquiry into Pacific ferry sinking

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Wellington (AFP)

A senior lawmaker called Wednesday for an independent inquiry into the disappearance of a Kiribati ferry believed to have sunk in the Pacific with up to 100 people aboard.

A multinational rescue operation is scouring vast swathes of ocean for survivors, but only seven people have been found alive so far and hopes are fading of locating any more.

Former Kiribati prime minister Ieremia Tabai, who represents the island of Nonouti from where the ferry departed on January 18, slammed the government's handling of the disaster.

Tabai said his grief-stricken constituents on the island of 2,000 wanted to know why it took eight days to raise the alarm and how the unseaworthy vessel was allowed to sail in the first place.

"This tragedy demands an independent commission of inquiry," he told Radio New Zealand.

"We need to know why it happened and (who is) responsible."

The MV Butiraoi, 17.5-metre (57.4-foot) wooden catamaran, set off on a planned two-day voyage to Betio, the largest township of Kiribati's capital, South Tarawa.

Local authorities said it ran aground and underwent repairs to its propeller shaft before it left Nonouti.

Tabai said the vessel was not believed to be carrying mandatory safety equipment such as an emergency locator beacon.

"The government is responsible because they did not look after the situation well, they should have ensured that particular vessel should not have sailed in the first place," he said.

He said the ferry was a free inter-island service that was carrying a large number of high-school students returning to Tarawa before the start of a new term.

The exact number of people on the vessel is unknown, with estimates ranging from 35 to more than 100.

"My guess is that a figure of 100 is not far off, and that boat is too small to take that kind of number," Tabai said.

He said the ferry's loss was a tragedy for Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reefs with a population of about 110,000, that lies some 3,460 kilometres (2,150 miles) northeast of Fiji.

"It's a real sad day for those who lost their loved one. For my village two or three people that I personally know, that live next door in my village, were on that boat and perished."

Four aircraft from New Zealand, Australia and the United States are still conducting sweeps in the area where the ferry went missing.

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