Kiribati accused of trying to hide ferry disaster report

Wellington (AFP) –


The government of Kiribati was accused Friday of attempting to bury a damning report into the Pacific island nation's worst ferry disaster, which claimed 81 lives last year.

Officials have reportedly released only a few hard copies of the report into the loss of the ferry MV Butiraoi, which sank in January last year after setting off from Nonouti island bound for the capital Tarawa.

Ferries are a transport lifeline in Kiribati, which consists of 33 atolls and reefs scattered over an area the size of the continental United States.

The report can only be viewed at President Taneti Maamau's office or the national library in Tarawa, Radio New Zealand reported, adding that those who saw the document could not copy it or even take notes about its contents.

Despite the extraordinary restrictions, former president Ierimia Tabai said he had seen the report and could relay its main findings.

"There was one that the ship wasn't seaworthy when it was allowed to sail," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Tabai said the report also criticised delays in the rescue effort, which was not launched until eight days after the ferry disappeared.

It found only seven survivors in a dinghy and the rest of the 88 people on board perished, including 23 children.

Maamau's office did not respond to requests from AFP for a copy of the report.

Tabai criticised the restrictions imposed on the report's availability, saying the government appeared worried about the failings highlighted in the document.

"It's not on. It's nonsense. It's just not the sort of thing that should happen in a democracy like this," he said.

Maamau's government faced criticism last year for obstructing Australian and New Zealand journalists wanting to travel to the remote Pacific nation to cover the disaster's aftermath.

The country's last major ferry disaster was in 2009, when the Uean Te Rao II sank with the loss of 35 lives.

A subsequent investigation found the vessel was unseaworthy and not carrying an emergency beacon, flares or sufficient life jackets.

It also found safety standards on the Kiribati domestic fleet were not sufficiently enforced.