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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 February 2006, 10:00 GMT
Hopes dim for Egypt ferry missing
Survivors of ferry disaster is brought ashore

Hopes are fading for more than 900 people missing after the Red Sea ferry disaster, as survivors said a fire broke out hours before the ship sank.

The blaze started early in the voyage from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, they said.

Around 350 survivors have been rescued, officials say, but most of the estimated 1,400 people on board the al-Salam Boccaccio '98 are feared lost.

Relatives desperate for news about the tragedy have gathered at Safaga port in Egypt, where the ferry was heading.

It was like the Titanic on fire
Survivor quoted by AP agency

Many have voiced anger at the authorities' apparent failure to keep them informed about the disaster and subsequent rescue efforts.

"They are not telling us anything," shouted a man named Gedir Mohammed, according to the Reuters news agency.

"Where are the corpses? Where are they taking the survivors?" he asked.

Survivors visibly suffering from the effects of cold have been coming ashore at the Egyptian port of Hurghada early on Saturday, describing how the fire burned on board before the ship finally sank.

Capacity: 1,487
Built: Italy 1970
Length: 118m (388ft)
Gross tonnage: 11,779t
Owner: El-Salam Maritime

One shouted: "It was like the Titanic on fire," according to the AP news agency.

The fire started less than two hours after the ferry sailed from Duba in Saudi Arabia on Thursday night, survivors said.

"There was thick smoke. We asked why and they told us they were putting out the fire but it got worse," Rifat Said, from from Giza near Cairo, was quoted by Reuters agency as saying.

"The ferry sailed on for two hours listing to the side. Then it just went onto its side and within five minutes it had sunk."

Raafat al-Sayyed told AFP news agency that passengers were told to gather on the decks so that crew members could extinguish the blaze.

Another Egyptian, Kamel Mohammad Abdel Askari, added: "But the fire continued for a long time, and they (the crew) kept on saying that they were getting it under control."

Some claimed the Saudi port was still visible at the time the fire started, but the ship sailed on.

An Egyptian minister described the fire as "small" and said there was no explosion on board.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has ordered an inquiry into the circumstances in which the 35-year-old Italian-built boat sank.

His spokesman, Suleiman Awad, said "the speed at which the ship sank and the fact there were not enough life rafts on board confirm that there was a [safety] problem".

2002: Joola, Senegal, more than 1,800
2001: Java, Indonesia, more than 500
1996: Bukoba, Tanzania, more than 500
1994: Estonia, Baltic Sea, 852
1991: Salam Express, Egypt, 464
1987: Dona Paz, Philippines, more than 4,300

"But we cannot anticipate the results of the investigation," he told public television.

Most of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, but some were said to be pilgrims returning from Mecca.

No distress signal was said to have been received by Egyptian officials before the ship went down.

Warships and helicopters have been searching the area, which Ayman al-Kaffas, spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in London, described as "vast".

A British warship sent to the area has been recalled after Egypt said it was no longer needed.

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