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Search Continues  for Victims of Philippine Ferry Fire - 2004-02-29

Philippine search-and-rescue teams were combing the charred hull of a half-submerged ferry on Sunday to try and find more than 100 people still missing after the boat caught fire at sea last week.

Teams using ropes, flashlights and axes moved cautiously through the still smoldering ferry Sunday while coast guard divers probed the submerged portion of the boat, which caught fire and was abandoned early Friday morning near the mouth of Manila Bay.

The vessel, en route from Manila to the central and southern Philippines, had been carrying almost 900 passengers and crew. Coastguard officials said close to 766 people were brought to safety by rescue craft, one is confirmed dead, and most of the rest are still unaccounted for.

The cause of the fire is not yet known, although witnesses said they heard an explosion on board before the blaze broke out.

The Islamic extremist group Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network and is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, called a local radio station on Sunday to claim responsibility for the fire.

The army's chief public information officer, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero, says he doubts the claim, but investigators are keeping an open mind on the incident.

"We are not totally discounting that they could have had a hand on this, but we are looking at all angles, not only the Abu Sayyaf but [also] other such groups," he said.

Search leaders said Sunday they still hold out hope that some of the missing passengers may be trapped inside accommodation areas of the ship and could be alive.

The Philippines has a long history of serious maritime accidents, including the worst-ever peacetime disaster at sea, in which more than 4,000 people died after a ferry collided with a tanker in 1987.