Friday, March 31, 2006

Ship Sinks Off Bahrain Coast

As many as 54 people drowned after an overloaded tourist boat with more than 130 people on a dinner cruise capsized and sank off the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. Coastguard commander Youssif al-Ghatam said 63 people had been rescued so far. He said most of those on board were Asians, but passengers also included Europeans and Arabs. Television stations put the death toll at 54, although officials said the number was lower. US navy divers and helicopters were searching for bodies. US and Bahraini officials said there was no indication that the sinking was the result of an attack. "Up to this moment, it appears totally unlikely," Information Minister Mohammed Abdul-Ghaffar Abdullah told Al Arabiya television. The owner of the boat blamed overloading.
"It has a capacity of 200 but it is allowed to carry only 100 passengers," Abdullah al-Qubaisi of the Al-Dana company said on state television. He said the boat was rented to a tour company which arranged the dinner and cruise for European and Asian employees of a local company. "They loaded the boat with more than its capacity. The captain refused to sail but they forced him to leave," Qubaisi said. A survivor told reporters that the two-storey boat had capsized after apparently hitting a wave as it was turning about 1.5km off shore of the Gulf island state. Abdullah said initial reports suggested around 25 Britons, 20 Filipinos, 10 South Africans and 10 Egyptians were among those on board. Bahrain's Health Minister Nada Haffadh told Al Arabiya television that a group of 11 rescued passengers included six Indians, one South African, one Briton, and two Singaporeans. She said all were in a stable condition. The British Foreign Office in London said it was "very likely" the ship was carrying British passengers. British diplomats were at the Bahrain coastguard centre and the hospital where survivors and the dead were being taken, the spokesman said. Commander Jeff Breslau, a spokesman for the US Navy's 5th Fleet which is based in Bahrain, said 16 navy divers and a US ship were assisting in rescue efforts. He said the boat had sunk in a harbour close to the shore. "The first report we received was that a dhow (traditional wooden boat) has capsized. We are preparing a helicopter to join the rescue," Breslau said. "There is no initial indication that this was an attack."

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