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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 22:09 GMT 23:09 UK
Q&A: What caused the Joola ferry disaster?
Many questions have been asked, and very few answered, since the Senegalese state-run ferry, the Joola, sank off the coast of Gambia on 26 September.

The inquiry ordered by the authorities is expected to produce some initial results quickly. But Ivorians have already blamed factors such as the design of the ship itself, the state of its engine and the overcrowding onboard, as well as the political situation in the country.

BBC News Online's Beatrice Murail looks at some of the questions which could explain Africa's worst sea disaster.

Was the Joola, a coastal ferry, in high seas when it capsized?

The marine consultants who supervised the construction of the ferry, Ingo Schlueter, in Germany, told BBC News Online that as a coastal ferry, the Joola was allowed to travel as far as 20 nautical miles (37 km) off the coast.

More importantly, it had to be no more than six hours away from the coast.

According to a diver who took part in the rescue efforts, the Joola was 35 km off the Gambian coast when it capsized.

But the ferry was about 11 hours away from the coast: it had left Ziguinchor, in the southern province of Casamance, around noon, and capsized around 11pm.

Was the Joola seaworthy?

The Joola had only recently resumed service after undergoing repairs.

The ferry, which normally travelled between Dakar and Ziguinchor twice a week, now did just one voyage per week as one of the engines had been repaired and needed to be run in.

Journalists who travelled on board the ferry on 10 September, when it resumed service, reported a number of problems.

The director general of the company which managed the Joola for five years after its launch in 1990, Simon Boissy, told BBC News Online that, in his opinion, the accident was the result of poor maintenance.

Mr Boissy, who is from Casamance and who lost many members of his family in the tragedy, said that a ferry like the Joola was designed to last 30 or 40 years and that its state of disrepair was likely to be the cause of the tragedy.

So did the Joola resume service prematurely?

The BBC's Mame Less Camara, in Dakar, says that the ferry probably resumed service before it had undergone sufficient checks because the Senegalese Government wanted to show goodwill towards the separatist movement of Casamance, which whom it was supposed to resume talks.

When the ferry was relaunched on 10 September, the two leaders of the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces, the MFDC, were in Ziguinchor harbour to greet it.

The region depends heavily on the ferry to sell its agricultural produce to the rest of the country, from which it is isolated because of its geographical situation, south of the Gambia.

Many of the passengers on the ferry were women travelling to Dakar to sell palm oil and mangoes on the market there.

Our correspondent says there is another reason why the Senegalese authorities were under pressure to allow the Joola to resume service.

A few months ago, the Gambia raised the fare for Senegalese lorry drivers to cross the river Gambia. As a result, drivers had to go further east around the Gambia to reach the north or the south of the country. The resumption of the ferry service would have been a relief for those traders.

Was overcrowding a determining factor?

President Abdoulaye Wade has said it has been established that the state-run ship was overloaded, and the government has accepted responsibility for the tragedy.

The ferry was meant to accommodate 536 passengers and 44 crew, as well as about 40 cars. But at least 1,034 people are believed to have been on board, and the actual figure, as well as the toll, could be much higher, as all children under five and many adults were not ticketed.

Our correspondent says that it is a tradition in Senegal, as in many developing countries, to allow poor people to travel for free out of solidarity.

But poorly paid ferry officials have also been accused of taking kickbacks to allow extra passengers on board.

Bad weather, rather than overcrowding, has also been blamed. A Navy Commander, Ouseynou Combo, said in remarks quoted by AP news agency that "there was no problem of weight or of overloading of a nature that would cause this situation". He cited a fierce, brief gale that had blown up.

Who bears the political responsibility?

President Wade has acknowledged his government's "obvious" responsibility, and on Tuesday, he accepted the resignations of his Transport Minister, Youssouph Sakho, and Armed Forces Minister, Youba Sambou, in connection with the disaster.

Several pressure groups had called for the government's resignation or said they would sue the state for negligence and the chaotic management in the aftermath of the tragedy.

But SOS Casamance, which includes people from the region, has accused the separatist MFDC of being indirectly responsible for the tragedy by making road travel dangerous and thus encouraging people to travel by ferry.

Many travellers have been killed when their vehicles were attacked by the separatist rebels over the 20 years they have been fighting the authorities in Dakar.

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28 Sep 02 | Africa
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