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Bangladesh: Rescue Operations Continue in Ferry Sinking - 2003-07-10

In Bangladesh, rescuers are continuing their search for a ferry that capsized with hundreds of passengers on board. But hopes of finding survivors are fading. Rescue operations to locate the sunken ferry resumed at first light, near Chandpur town, about 60 kilometers south of Dhaka.

Officials say efforts to locate the vessel by two salvage ships and navy divers have been slowed by swift currents. The vessel sank midstream, and is believed to be at least 60 meters under water.

The multi-deck ferry was on its way from the capital, Dhaka, to the coastal town of Bhola, when it went down Tuesday night in strong currents at the confluence of three rivers. About 200 people managed to swim to safety, or were rescued by fishermen and passing boats.

The search for the remaining passengers has been largely futile. Most are thought to be trapped inside the ferry.

Crowds of grieving men and women are thronging the shores of the river, hoping for some news about family members aboard the ferry. Many homes in nearby villages have raised black flags to mourn the victims.

There is confusion about the number of passengers on the vessel, with estimates ranging between 500 and 700. Ferries in Bangladesh do not carry passenger lists, and many people buy tickets after boarding. But officials say it is certain the ferry was overcrowded. Rules to prevent overcrowding are routinely flouted in Bangladesh.

The latest accident has again raised questions on the government's failure to improve safety standards for ferry travel, a popular and cheap mode of transport in the delta nation. Tight regulations for river transportation have been drafted, but are seldom enforced.

In April, authorities withdrew a ban on night travel, after boat operators promised not to travel in bad weather and to follow safety regulations.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has appointed a three-member team to investigate the latest accident. It is the worst disaster this year. Four earlier accidents had already claimed 300 lives.