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Rescue Efforts Continue in Red Sea Ferry Disaster

Rescue efforts are still under way to find possible survivors of an Egyptian passenger ferry that sank in the Red Sea early Friday, carrying roughly 1,400 people. There are conflicting reports about the number of survivors who have been rescued so far, with some sources saying it is about 100, and others saying it could be twice that many. It is feared that the death toll will be high.

Dramatic television footage showed helicopters plucking survivors out of the water and off of life rafts in the rough waters of the Red Sea.

Red Sea provincial Governor Abu Bakr El-Rashidi told VOA that nightfall would not stop the rescue efforts.

"Rescue operations are still going on and will continue," he said. "God willing, rescue operations will continue."

It is not yet known what caused the passenger ferry to sink en route from the Saudi port of Dubah to the Egyptian port of Safaga. Officials say severe weather and rough seas could have been a factor.

The governor said search-and-rescue operations began early Friday, as soon as authorities realized that the ship had not arrived on schedule. But reports from the Red Sea say high winds and rough waves hampered early rescue efforts.

Andrea Odone is an official with El-Salam Maritime Transport, the company that owns the ship. He said it looks like it sank without warning.

"No, there were no distress calls," he said. "No distress was recorded from the satellites or whatever."

News agencies say it is true that no distress signals were heard at the ports on either side of the Red Sea. But the official MENA news agency says another ferry, the St. Catherine, did receive a distress call from the captain of the doomed vessel. It is not clear what the St. Catherine did next.

A distress signal was also picked up by a British air force base in Scotland, and reportedly relayed to Egyptian authorities via France.

The transport company's Andrea Odone would not speculate on how the disaster occurred.

"We do not have and we cannot confirm anything about how many lifeboats have [been] launched or whatever," he said. "What we can say is the vessel is well equipped with safety devices for more than 2,000 passengers. For this part we are confident that the crew is well prepared. But at the moment we cannot guess the reason or whatever."

Egyptian authorities have launched an investigation into the accident. A spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak said the speed with which the ship sank indicated a possible safety problem. He also indicated that there may not have been enough life rafts aboard.

A sister ship owned by the same company sank in October after colliding with a Cypriot commercial vessel. Two people were killed in that accident.