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Desperate search resumes for missing after Lake Victoria disaster

NAIROBI (AFP) - 

Tanzanian rescue workers scrambled Friday to find scores of people feared drowned after a ferry capsized in Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, killing at least 44 people.

The MV Nyerere may have been carrying as many as 200 passengers -- double the ferry's capacity -- when it capsized close to the pier on Ukara Island on Thursday afternoon, according to state media.

"Army and police divers have just resumed operations," George Nyamaha, who heads Ukerewe district council of which the island is a part, told AFP on Friday morning.

He said that 44 bodies had so far been recovered and 37 people rescued.

Rescue operations were suspended overnight and hopes are fading that more survivors might still be found, more than 18 hours since the vessel sank.

State television broadcast footage of onlookers crowding the pier, adding: "People are aware that the hopes of finding survivors are almost nil."

The broadcaster cited witnesses reporting that over 200 people had boarded the ferry at Bugorora Island at around midday.

Contacted by AFP, regional governor John Mongella said he could not confirm the number of passengers or the number still missing.

Tanzania's Electrical, Mechanical and Services Agency, which is responsible for ferry services, said it was unknown how many passengers were aboard the MV Nyerere.

The ageing ferry was also carrying cargo, including sacks of maize, bananas and cement, when it overturned and then sank around 50 metres (55 yards) from Ukara dock.

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, but overloading is frequently to blame for such incidents.

- Overloading and 'negligence' -

President John Magufuli was "deeply saddened" by the disaster and called on Tanzanians to "stay calm during these difficult times," according to spokesman Gerson Msigwa.

The country's opposition, however, accused the government of "negligence".

"We have often raised concerns about the poor condition of this ferry, but the government turned a deaf ear. We have repeatedly denounced this negligence," said John Mnyika, deputy secretary general of Chadema, the main opposition party.

Mnyika said overloading was "another failure of the authorities" and criticised "inadequate relief efforts as well as delays" in the rescue operation.

With a surface area of 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles), oval-shaped Lake Victoria is roughly the size of Ireland and is shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

Capsizes are not uncommon in the massive lake, and the number of fatalities is often high due to a shortage of life jackets and the fact that many people in the region cannot swim.

The deadliest such accident in recent decades was in May 1996, when around 800 people died after their ferry sank on the way to Mwanza in Tanzania.

Waters in the lake can be rough and boats are frequently poorly maintained, while ferry operators often fail to record the number of passengers on board.

Around 20 people were killed in December 2016 when their boat overturned in Lake Victoria as it was carrying passengers to Uganda's mainland for Christmas holidays.

And in March 2012, only two survivors were found after a boat believed to be carrying around 60 people capsized on the lake in Uganda.

© 2018 AFP