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Lawsuits Planned for Zanzibar Ferry Accident

Relatives jostle to identify the bodies of their relatives who perished in a ferry tragedy that occurred on its way to Pemba on a picture board at the Maisara grounds in Zanzibar, September 11, 2011.

A legal aid organization is planning to sue Zanzibar's government and others involved for negligence in what is called East Africa’s worst maritime disaster in 15 years. Police are still searching for survivors following the sinking of a ferry Saturday in which at least 190 people drowned.

Zanzibar Police Commissioner Mussa Ali Mussa tells VOA police are focusing on the waters between Tanzania’s coast and Pemba, one of three islands that comprise the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago.

“We are using helicopters to survey the whole area from Tanga to Pemba so as to check out whether we have any dead bodies or we have survivors in that area," said Mussa. "The wind moved from the incidence area to that area - from Pemba to Tanga.”

Commissioner Mussa tells VOA that investigators need to determine the cause of the accident.

"I think this is very, very early now to draw a conclusion that the incident was due to the overcrowding or overloading or something like that,” said Mussa.

But many Zanzibaris quoted in press reports say overcrowding of ferries is a common occurrence.

A non-government legal aid group called the Zanzibar Legal Services Center is calling for the government to launch an impartial investigation and prosecute those responsible for the disaster.

“We know that there is a lot of people who did not take care of their work," explained Harusi Mpatani, acting executive director. "That is why there was overcrowding, there was a lot of luggage which were not supposed to be taken, and others, they say that even the boat was not in good condition.”

She says her organization is consulting with other groups to put together a court case.

“We think [we are going] to sue the government first of all - the government in general - then after that the owner of the boat, then the minister of transport, who is, according to our laws, is responsible and he is the one to allow the boat to go in or out. “

Mpatani says the case may include officials from mainland Tanzania, as the vessel began its journey from the capital Dar es Salaam and was reportedly overcrowded then. She says victims have told her group that there was, in her words, “negligence that was purposely done.”

Commissioner Mussa told VOA that at least 190 people drowned and more than 600 survived the accident, which occurred early Saturday when the MV Spice Islander sank while transporting people between Zanzibar’s three islands. South African divers are searching for bodies trapped inside the wreckage of the ship.

The MV Spice Islander was designed to carry a maximum of 600 passengers. Survivors report the vessel carried from 800 to more than 1,000 passengers.