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Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 16:40 UK

Tonga sinking leaves 30 missing

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Search and rescue officer Keith Allen: "Anybody who is in the water still, has a very good chance of survival"

About 30 people remain missing after a ferry sank off the Pacific island nation of Tonga.

The ferry, carrying at least 86 people, sank about 86km (54 miles) north-east of the capital, Nuku'alofa, as it travelled to outlying islands.

Two people, including one Briton, are confirmed to have died and the search for survivors is continuing overnight.

Fifty-three people were rescued after the Princess Ashika sent a Mayday call about 2300 local time.

The dead British man has been named by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as Dan MacMillan, 48, who had been living in New Zealand.

The FCO said Mr MacMillan's family had been informed and were being offered consular assistance.

It is not yet clear why the ferry sank but there are suggestions that cargo in its hold may have been dislodged, destabilising the vessel.

Tongan officials said at least 86 passengers and crew were on the vessel when it sank.

'Empty lifeboats'

Concerned relatives wait in the Tongan capital for news after the sinking of the ferry
Relatives in the Tongan capital waited for news of the ferry

A survivor, Siaosi Lavaka, said only men appeared to have survived, as the accident happened in the middle of the night as women and children slept on the lower decks.

"No women or children made it," Mr Lavaka told news website Matangi Tonga after he arrived at Ha'afeva.

There were nine lifeboats and Mr Lavaka said seven were filled with men. Another lifeboat was empty, and a ninth drifted away, he said.

Speaking at a South Pacific leaders' summit in Cairns, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said there had been "considerable loss of life".

"Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those that have been affected by this great tragedy," he said.

New Zealand maritime officials picked up a Mayday call from the inter-island ferry and launched a rescue mission involving a Royal New Zealand Airforce plane.

People had no choice but to use it because there's no other boat
Pesi Fonua

Four vessels, including a Tongan Navy vessel, were also helping with the search, and a fifth vessel was making its way to the area.

"You have to be very methodical and search every square inch," said Ross Henderson of New Zealand Maritime Rescue.

"It is a time-consuming process, so you know we just work our way through that and we remain hopeful of recovering people as soon as we can."

Mike Roberts of the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre (NZRCC) said it was difficult to know when to stop searching until the authorities could confirm how many people were missing.

But conditions in the area were good for searching and the water temperature remained around 25C, meaning anyone in the sea had a good chance of survival, said New Zealand officials.

'No choice'

Map

Tonga consists of 170 islands dotted over an area of 748 sq km (289 sq miles), and is heavily reliant on ferries.

The cargo on board included a new ambulance and vehicles for the hospital serving the Vava'u island group, a spokesman for the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia said, according to AFP news agency.

Pesi Fonua, editor of Matangi Tonga, said the ferry had been temporarily providing a service until a new Japanese vessel took over in 2011, and that Tongans had been nervous about using it.

"People had no choice but to use it because there's no other boat and they certainly don't have the money to fly," the Herald Sun newspaper quoted him as saying.

New Zealand has international marine rescue responsibilities for a large part of the Pacific Ocean, including Tongan waters.



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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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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Cape TimesMore than 30 feared dead after ferry flips in rough seas off Tonga - 27 hrs ago
Canada.com 1 dead, 40 missing after Tongan ferry sinks - 32 hrs ago
Miami Herald Ferry sinks off Tonga; dozens missing, feared dead - 33 hrs ago
CTV.ca Dozens feared dead after ferry sinks off Tonga - 35 hrs ago
Times Online Briton killed in Tonga ferry disaster - 43 hrs ago
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