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Many Feared Dead in Congo Ferry Disaster - 2004-01-31


The United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo has confirmed that up to 200 people may still be missing after a passenger ferry caught fire on the Congo river, some 450 kilometers upstream from the capital, Kinshasa.

According to the United Nations and local witnesses, some 500 people were crammed aboard the Lengi Convoy, a passenger vessel crammed with local merchandise and fuel last Monday. A fire in the engine erupted and spread to fuel tanks, setting the boat alight and forcing its 500 passengers to jump into the water.

The U.N. mission has confirmed that 301 passengers were rescued but could not confirm whether the remaining 200 drowned or made it to safety near the town of Lukolela, some 450 kilometers up the Congo River from Kinshasa. But local villagers said they spotted dead bodies floating near the accident scene.

The disaster is the second such ferry accident since last November. In the previous accident, more than 150 people drowned when a ferry sank following a storm on a lake in the west of the country.

After five years of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which officially ended last summer with the swearing-in of a new transitional power-sharing government, much of the country's infrastructure remains devastated or simply non-existent.

The government has promised more money for transport projects on the Congo River, which curls thousands of kilometers into the country's interior and which is the umbilical cord for a country with a shocking road network.

But the government has begun getting bogged down in political squabbling between the former government members and the ex-rebel groups now part of the transitional set-up that is expected to take the country to elections in two years time.

Issues such as military integration, social spending, governorships and electoral laws are all lagging behind schedule, and the chances of serious reform of the country's transport sector remain slim.

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