/ 6 February 2006

Anger over Egypt ferry tragedy sparks violence

A mob of Egyptians ransacked on Monday the offices of the owners of a ferry that sank in the Red Sea as anger over the fate of relatives missing after one of the worst maritime disasters in living memory boiled over into violence.

Hopes of finding more survivors were fading fast four days after the 36-year-old ferry sank on a crossing from Saudi Arabia on Friday, amid growing controversy over the safety of the vessel, the actions of the crew and the slow start to the rescue operation.

According to the company that owned the doomed Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, 426 people have been pulled from the sea, leaving close to 1 000 dead or missing.

”Finally we’ve had good news, another 37 were found last night at 11pm [9pm GMT],” said Khaled Helmi, head of operations at the Al-Salam Maritime Transport Company. ”We should not lose all hope; the waters are not so cold.”

But doctors said they do not expect many more survivors to be found.

Angry mob

In Safaga, the doomed ship’s destination in south-eastern Egypt, an angry mob went on the rampage, ransacking Al-Salam offices and clashing with police, infuriated by the lack of information over the fate of their relatives.

Survivors and relatives have blamed Al-Salam for using a ship that did not comply with safety standards and accused the crew of ignoring a fire that broke out on board when there was still time to turn back to Saudi Arabia.

Questions are also being asked in the Egyptian press and Parliament about why the rescue and search operations started only seven hours after the ship sank.

The protesters ransacked the Safaga offices of a tour operator selling ferry tickets and broke into the offices of the shipping company in an adjacent building.

”Then they threw everything they could find out the window and set fire to the place,” witness Mustafa Mahmud said.

The crowd also torched rubbish bins and smashed municipal decorations before police dispersed them with tear gas, turning the usually peaceful diving resort into a smoking battlefield.

Several survivors have accused the ship’s captain, Omar Sayed, of refusing to acknowledge the risk posed by the fire and charged that the two hours during which the blaze raged would have given the ship enough time to return to shore.

”He could have gone back to Saudi Arabia, but he’s madman, he wanted to prove that he’s the hero,” said Mahmud.

Egyptian press reports alleged that one of the company’s other ships was informed that the Al-Salam had encountered difficulties but did not respond.

But the ship’s owners defended the record of the vessel and its crew, saying they met all international standards.

Bloated bodies

Official sources said 190 bodies have been recovered so far. An Agence France-Presse reporter in the resort of Hurghada, further north, said rows broke out at the hospital between families claiming the same bodies, often bloated beyond recognition.

”It’s normal there would be disputes about the identity because after some time in the sea, it’s like the face has come off,” a hospital official said.

He said the unidentified and disputed bodies were being sent to the central morgue in Cairo for DNA testing.

The 36-year-old ferry, which was driven out of its old European trading route when safety standards were upgraded a few years ago, was carrying 1 415 people between the Saudi port of Duba and Safaga when it sank.

The passengers were mainly Egyptians returning from their pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia or jobs in Gulf countries. Many were bringing months’, if not years’, worth of savings back to their families.

”I saw a couple embracing their baby before jumping in the water. They didn’t know how to swim,” said survivor Saud Habib el-Hotebi, a Saudi national. ”I saw women, children … all these people are dead.”

Cairo teacher Mohammed Sharaf Mustafa recounted scenes of chaos when the ship suddenly capsized and sank.

”Did you see Titanic? It was exactly like that, people trying to hold on, falling, smashing their heads, women and children, on each other, on the metal, on the glass … everyone screaming.”

According to medical sources, among the survivors was six-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Hassan, whose entire family is believed to have perished in the disaster.

The Italian classification society that inspected the ship, Registro Italiano Navale (Rina), said its seaworthiness had been checked twice last year.

Rina is facing prosecution in France for allegedly failing to carry out proper checks on the Maltese-flagged tanker Erika, which broke up off the coast of France six years ago. — Sapa-AFP