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Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 14:24 UK

Search halted for Tonga survivors

Tongan police carry coffin containing unidentified female victim of ferry sinking - 7 August 2009
Only two bodies have been recovered so far

Authorities in Tonga have suspended overnight the search for any survivors of a ferry sinking in which at least 64 people are feared to have drowned.

The vessel went down about 90km (55 miles) from the capital, Nuku'alofa, late on Wednesday, officials said.

Fifty-three male passengers, travelling on deck, were rescued but other passengers in cabins below decks, mainly women and children, are missing.

Tongan officials say 119 people were on board the Princess Ashika when it sank.

On Friday, Tonga's Prime Minister, Feleti Sevele, said there was little hope of finding more survivors from the overnight ferry sailing.

'We live in hope'

At dusk, authorities suspended the search for the night, and were not certain if it would be resumed at dawn.

New Zealand has been helping with the search effort and together with Australia has sent divers to help recover the bodies of victims.

This is a huge disaster, a huge loss, we'll try and cope with it as best we can
Feleti Sevele
Tongan Prime Minister

"We live in hope, and we will be making a decision overnight as to whether the search continues," New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre director John Dickson told New Zealand's National Radio.

Two bodies have so far been recovered, including a British man identified as Dan MacMillan, 48, who had been living in New Zealand.

German, French and Japanese nationals were reportedly among several other foreign nationals on board.

There is uncertainty about the exact number of people on board the Princess Ashika, with 15 survivors not on the passenger list, Tongan police commander Chris Kelley said.

MV Princess Ashika ferry in Nuku'alofa (file)
The Princess Ashika reportedly passed recent safety inspections

"We believe a more accurate manifest was on board and was lost so there could have been more persons on board who have not been identified," he said.

"This is a huge disaster, a huge loss, we'll try and cope with it as best we can," Prime Minister Sevele told reporters in Cairns, Australia, where he was attending the Pacific Islands Forum.

The Tongan leader said the cause of the sinking was unknown, and although questions have been raised about the vessel's seaworthiness he said it had passed safety inspections.

The ferry had been travelling from Nuku'alofa to outlying northern islands of Tonga when it sent a mayday call at about 2300 on Wednesday (1100 GMT).

Map

Those who managed to make it to lifeboats say the ferry rolled in heavy seas and sank within minutes.

"All the stuff, containers everything, was moved to one side and the ship starts to turn upside down," said survivor Pau Tupou.

"It is only one minute and the ship was gone down."

Media reports in New Zealand suggest the missing include 23 men, 21 women, and seven children, with more passengers yet to be identified.

The tragedy has rocked the tiny nation of 120,000, which consists of 170 islands dotted over 748 sq km (289 sq miles) of the South Pacific Ocean and is heavily reliant on ferries.



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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Tonga
14 Dec 11 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Tonga
21 May 11 |  Country profiles

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