Hopes fade for 80 missing in Zanzibar ferry disaster

Tanzanian officials have given up hope of rescuing more than 80 people still missing after a ferry sank off the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, with the death toll of 62 set to rise.

The vessel, which was officially carrying 291 passengers and crew, including more than 30 children, went down in choppy waters off Zanzibar on Wednesday after leaving Tanzania's commercial capital Dar es Salaam.

"Search operations continue but it is now almost impossible survivors will be found," Zanzibar police spokesman Mohamed Mhina told reporters, raising the prospect that some 145 may have died.

"The ship has completely sunk. There were 290 people on board," he said

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said in a statement: "this tragedy affects all of us, and the pain and suffering of those affected is the pain and suffering that we feel".

Officials said emergency workers had rescued 146 people and recovered 62 bodies.

Two foreign tourists were initially reported to be among the dead, but hospital administrator Omari Abdallan said so far only one "body of a white person" was in the morgue.

Anxious relatives of those missing were also losing hope of seeing their loved ones again.

"My two wives had gone to Dar es Salaam to visit relatives, but on their return, this is what happened," said 72-year-old Abdullay Yussuf.

"I do not have hope of finding them alive. I only ask Allah to give me their bodies, so I can bury them with dignity."

Surivors recounted how high waves tossed the ferry, the Skagit, about as it ran into trouble.

"The boat was pitching strongly," said Enos Masemba, 32, travelling to Zanzibar to find work, and who escaped only after a fellow passenger managed to smash a window so they could leap into the rough sea. His wife drowned in the tragedy.

It was the second such incident in less than a year: last September, more than 200 people died when the ferry Spice Islander sank on a similar voyage.

Mhina said that the conditions had hampered rescue operations.

"The weather was very bad, there were big waves and strong wind," he added.

Tanzania's police chief meanwhile arrived in Zanzibar to coordinate operations and launch an investigation.

Mohamed Shein, president of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago, has declared three days of mourning.

The archipelago is famed both for its white-sand beach resorts and for Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar, which is a UNESCO heritage site and popular tourist destination.

Officials said the ferry had been carrying 251 adults, 31 children and nine crew, according to the passenger list. At least 16 foreign tourists were on board, 14 of whom had been rescued.

But ferries in the region often carry additional passengers who do not feature on the official manifest.

The September sinking, one of the worst maritime disasters in Africa in the past decade, is believed to have been caused by overloading, with angry survivors accusing port and ferry officials of having ignored the protests of passengers that the boat was overcrowded.

The boat that sank on Wednesday had initially been reported by officials to be the Kalama, but officials said Thursday it was in fact its sister ship, the Skagit.

The Washington State Department of Transportation said it had sold both vessels to a Canadian company which operates routes between the African continent and Zanzibar.

In Ottawa, Scope Community Consultants Ltd said it had brokered the sale of the ferry and that the ship, built in 1989, was seaworthy at the time of sale.

Scope representative Peter Shayo, in an email to AFP, referred any further questions to Seagull Sea Transport Company, which he said operated the ferry out of Tanzania.

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