Liberia

At least 60 drown as Liberian boat capsizes

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By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA, Dec 16 (Reuters) - At least 60 people drowned and many more were feared dead after an overloaded ferry carrying 200 passengers back from a funeral capsized in the West African country of Liberia, officials said.

"The number of people who drowned has increased, by now the number has risen to 60," James Harris, a military officer who had been helping with the rescue effort, said on Monday. He said one of the victims was a diver looking for survivors.

"There are many, many bodies. There is no time to identify them, they are buried immediately. There's no time for a funeral or coffins," he said, adding that it was unlikely any more survivors would be found.

The wooden ferry "Papa Friends 2000" pitched its passengers into Lake Piso near the coastal town of Robersport in northwest Liberia on Saturday as they returned from the funeral of a popular local footballer, defence ministry officials said.

Defence Minister Daniel Chea told a news conference late on Sunday that 15 survivors had been pulled from the water and that the final death toll could be much higher.

Chea said that close to 200 people were aboard the vessel when it capsized. A defence ministry official said on Monday the ferry normally carried less than 100 people.

Harris said the ferry's captain was one of the survivors. He said he had complained the outboard motor powering the ferry was not working properly, but that he was told to return to Robertsport after the burial anyway.

One coastguard official said that search efforts in the lake, which is near the border with Sierra Leone, were being hampered by a lack of diving gear.

"Our work is still going on," the official told Reuters. "We will need some sophisticated equipment to carry on the exercise but we have not given up."

The ferry was one of three boats carrying the mourners from the funeral in the village of Sawelorh in Cape Mount county.

Saturday's capsize follows one of Africa's worst maritime disasters in September when well over 1,000 people died after an overloaded Senegalese ferry overturned in heavy seas off Gambia.

The ferry, en route to the Senegalese capital of Dakar from Ziguinchor in Senegal's southern province of Casamance, capsized within a matter of minutes after it was caught by gusts of wind and heavy rain, according to survivors.

It was built to carry just 550 passengers.

A crammed motorised wooden canoe similar to the one which capsized on Saturday sank in neighbouring Sierra Leone in March 1999, killing at least 150 people.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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