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150 bodies of Bangladesh ferry victims recovered

At least 150 bodies of the victims of Bangladesh's latest ferry disaster have been recovered so far, state-run media reported on Sunday.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2003 10:38 IST

At least 150 bodies of the victims of Bangladesh's latest ferry disaster have been recovered so far, state-run media reported on Sunday, leaving possibly hundreds still unaccounted for and prompting the government to issue another crackdown on unsafe ferries.

The overcrowded MV Nasreen-1 sank on Tuesday near the town of Chandpur, 43 kilometres (27 miles) southeast of Dhaka.

Until Saturday the death toll from the ferry capsize was reported to be 61.

But Bangladesh Television (BTV) said Sunday that 150 bodies had now been found, most in the coastal areas of Barisal and Bhola districts, some distance from the accident site, where they had been swept by currents.

An official from the district ferry disaster centre in Chandpur, Nawab Aslam Habib, could not confirm the figure and told AFP by telephone that the official toll was 66, while at least 198 people were still listed missing according to statements recorded from their relatives.

Other officials said a further seven bodies had been recovered taking the total official death toll to 73.

French President Jaques Chirac was one of the first Western leaders to express dismay at the "heavy toll" from the incident.

In a statement issued Sunday by France's embassy in Dhaka, he asked his Bangladeshi counterpart Iajuddin Ahmed to pass his condolences to bereaved families.

BTV also reported that Prime Minister Khaleda Zia chaired a special meeting on the disaster Sunday and directed officials to rigorously enforce river safety rules and crackdown again on old or defective ferries that ply without authorisation.

Zia met with Shipping Minister Akbar Hossain and a number of other senior ministers to discuss the accident.

She expressed displeasure at existing river vessel management and directed them to update existing laws, rules and regulations related to passenger safety, the BSS news agency said quoting her chief secretary Kamal Siddiqui.

After a series of ferry accidents in April, the government banned hundreds of unfit and defective ferries. But the rules were overturned after a crippling three-day protest strike by ferry operators.

More than 4,000 ferries operate along Bangladesh's 230 rivers and waterways daily transporting more than 100,000 people.

Several rescue and naval ships were at the accident site Sunday but rain and severe whirlpools in the river were hampering attempts to trace the ferry, believed to be lying some 60 metres (200 feet) underwater.

BTV said naval divers were hoping to trace the sunken vessel within a day.

River officials fear the wreckage could have been buried under sand or swept down towards the sea. Even if the remains of the boat are finally located, it was uncertain whether it could be salvaged.

A navy official said currents at the site of the sinking were measured at six knots, three times the speed recorded elsewhere in Bangladesh.

The snail's pace rescue effort has infuriated relatives of the missing, most of whom by Friday ended their vain vigil waiting for survivors.

The double-decker ferry had a capacity of 429 but officials said it was overcrowded. Some 200 people were rescued or swam safely to shore.

One Dhaka daily earlier speculated up to 1,000 people might have perished in what would be one of the most deadly in a long history of ferry disasters in Bangladesh.

On Saturday, Shipping Minister Akbar Hossain ordered that all staff at Dhaka's main ferry terminal be taken off the job while being investigated for negligence, following stinging media criticism about lax safety standards.

The overcrowded ferry began its doomed journey Tuesday from Dhaka headed for the coastal town of Bhola. There remains no hard figures on the number of people killed as the ferries rarely issue tickets or keep passenger rosters.

Hossain said more efficient personnel would be employed at the terminal in the capital.

According to media reports some 140 personnel of the terminal were asked to leave their posts immediately and report to the ministry, which controls ferry operations.

Officials said a ferry went down at the same site in 1994, killing more than 150 passengers. The wreckage of the boat was never retrieved.

More than 3,000 people have died in some 260 ferry accidents in Bangladesh since 1977.

Ferry accidents are mostly blamed on overcrowding, faulty design or operators who ignore storm warnings.

First Published: Jul 14, 2003 10:38 IST