Ferry capsizes in Persian Gulf

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Bahrain coast guard has recovered at least 48 bodies.

MANAMA, Bahrain -- A ferry carrying up to 150 people capsized Thursday night in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Bahrain, and at least 48 bodies were recovered, the country's coast guard chief said. American divers and a U.S. helicopter aided the rescue effort.

Coast guard chief Youssef al-Katem said at least 63 people survived. A passenger on board the ferry calling from his cell phone was the first to alert officials that the ship was listing, he said.

The official Bahrain News Agency said the ferry -- the al-Dana -- was on an evening cruise that was to last several hours. It overturned less than a mile off the coast, it said. Television footage showed the ferry capsized but not sunk, with rescue workers walking on its brown hull.

U.S. helicopters and divers joined the rescue operation launched by Bahrain's coast guard. Bahrain, a tiny island nation on the western side of the Persian Gulf, is home to the Navy's 5th Fleet.

Rescue teams brought bodies covered with white sheets to shore, and hospital workers hurried them to waiting ambulances. Scores of officials and relatives waited on the dock watching small rescue boats with flashing blue lights bring more bodies and survivors.

There was no indication of what caused the ferry to capsize in what appeared to be ideal weather conditions. The government dismissed terrorism as a cause, and the news agency quoted Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Mohammed Ben Dayna calling it an accident.

"It's too early to say what caused the accident," Ben Dayna said.

Al-Katem said an investigation was underway. The ferry's owners said overloading could have caused the ferry to capsize, according to Bahrain television.

The passengers were thought to be a mix of Bahrainis, nationals of other Gulf Arab nations and Westerners. Health Minister Nada Haffadh told al-Arabiya television that survivors who arrived at hospitals included nationals of India, South Africa, Singapore and Britain.

Information Minister Mohammed Abul-Ghafar, interviewed on al-Arabiya television, said the passengers included 25 Britons, 20 Filipinos, 10 South Africans and 10 Egyptians.

Haffadh said 24 people were hospitalized and that other survivors had been released upon arrival on shore. Television footage showed survivors, appearing to be in shock and their hair still wet, squatting on the floor of a hospital. Many of them covered themselves with blankets. One male survivor was shown being treated for cuts to the head.

Interior Minister Sheik Al Kahlifa said most of the ferry's passengers were employees of a Bahrain-based company.

Al-Katem said there were 150 guests at a dinner party aboard the ferry. The guests, he said, ate dinner while the ferry was still docked and that up to 20 of them disembarked before it sailed.

Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy, told The Associated Press that the U.S. military aided the rescue effort. The Navy has had a presence in Bahrain for more than 50 years.

"We're sending divers, small boats and a helicopter," Breslau said.

A pair of helicopters could be seen from the shore flying low over the site of the incident. Rescue teams on small boats could also be seen using flashlights to help them search for survivors.

The capsizing of the ship came about two months after an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea, killing about 1,000 people. The vessel was en route from the Saudi port of Dubah to the Egyptian port of Safaga when it went down before dawn about 60 miles off the Egyptian coast.

Bahrain is an oil-exporting and refining archipelago of 688,000 off the coast of Saudi Arabia.


Associated Press reporters Sam F. Ghattas in Beirut, Lebanon; Omar Sinan, in Cairo, Egypt; and Jim Krane in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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