At least 43 people died when a ferry capsized off the coast of Zanzibar, but around 300 people are feared still missing, a minister in the semi-autonomous archipelago said on Saturday.
“So far we have recovered 43 people who died, but we have rescued 259 survivors,” said Mohammed Aboud, Zanzibar’s state minister for emergencies, adding that 40 of those rescued were seriously injured.
Officials said that around 600 people were believed to have been on the stricken ferry, including families returning home after the holidays to celebrate the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The exact number of passengers on this type of ferry is often difficult to establish as no reliable passenger lists are kept.
“We have asked for emergency assistance from Dar es Salaam, including divers, to help in the rescue efforts,” Aboud said.
The MV Spice Islander, which was travelling between Zanzibar’s main island Unguja and Pemba, two of the three islands that make up Zanzibar, had left Unguja around 9pm and capsized four hours later.
It was reportedly carrying a heavy cargo of rice and other goods.
“Rescue operations are being hampered by a lack of equipment,” deputy secretary of state for infrastructure and communication Issa Gavu said.
However, survivors have begun arriving back in Stone Town, the main port and capital of the archipelago, with an emergency first aid centre set up in the port to treat those arriving by rescue speed boat from the capsized boat.
No foreigners have so far been reported amongst either the dead or rescued, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Ferries have a poor safety record in Tanzania. In May 2009, a ferry capsized leaving six people dead, while several fires on cargo boats have been reported in recent years.
Passengers who regularly take ferries between the two islands said the vessels are in a poor state of repair and are often overcrowded and loaded with cargo.
“They normally pack us in like sardines in a can. And for that I really fear this could be a very big disaster,” said resident Mwnakhamis Juma.
The government in Zanzibar said in August it planned to invest in bigger, more reliable vessels to ferry passengers between the two islands.
“We are fearing the greatest calamity in the history of Zanzibar. This is a disaster,” said a government official, who declined to be named.
Mussa said rescue workers with the aid of some fishing boats in the area were helping to rescue more passengers and recover bodies to bring them to Zanzibar’s main town for post-mortems and identification.
“Because of strong ocean winds, some of the bodies could even be washed up in Tanga [mainland Tanzania],” he said. “The cause of the accident cannot be confirmed at the moment.”
A parent in Mkoani on Pemba island was already mourning his three children, who were aboard the vessel capsized MV Spice.
“I had two sons and a daughter coming back to Pemba from a school holiday break … and I am fearing for the worse,” said Juma Bakar.
Tourism is the main foreign currency earner for Zanzibar, famed for its white-sand beaches and historical buildings in Stone Town, listed as a world heritage site by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation.
Pemba lies about 80km north-west of Unguja. — AFP, Reuters