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Ferry with 1,272 passengers sinks

03 February 2006 [19:46] - TODAY.AZ
A ferry carrying 1,272 passengers sank in the Red Sea overnight on a trip from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, and search and rescue teams retrieved dozens of dead bodies from the water, official sources said on Friday.

According to Jonathan Wright, Reuters news agency's correspondent, Egyptian state television quoted naval sources as saying rescue teams had also picked up 100 survivors but other official sources gave numbers between 14 and 20 for those found alive.

At least 12 survivors were brought ashore at the Egyptian port of Safaga, where the 35-year-old ferry was meant to arrive at 2 a.m. (7 p.m. EST) on Friday morning, Egyptian security sources said.

A search and rescue plane spotted a lifeboat near where the 11,800 gross ton Al Salam 98 last had contact with shore at about 10 p.m. (3 p.m. EST) on Thursday, one official said.

"Dozens of bodies were picked up from the sea ... they were from the ferry," a police source at Safaga said.

An official at el-Salam Maritime Transport Company, owner of the ferry, said it might take hours to find out what had happened to the ship, which was built in Italy in 1970 and moved to the Egyptian company in 1998.

None of the officials said there was any indication that the sinking was the result of an attack on the ferry.

Most of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, officials said, but at this time of year many Egyptians are still on their way home from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Egypt's state news agency MENA said the passengers were 1,158 Egyptians, 99 Saudis, six Syrians, four Palestinians, a Canadian, a Yemeni, an Omani, a Sudanese and one person from the United Arab Emirates. The ship had a crew of close to 100.

The London-based Lloyds Casualty Service, citing the Egyptian defense ministry, said the ship was believed to have sunk at latitude 27.08 degrees North and longitude 34.57 degrees East, about half way through its voyage.

The ferry was on a trip between the Saudi port of Duba and Safaga, both at the northern end of the Red Sea. It had originally come from Jeddah, main port for the haj pilgrimage.

MENA said the Saint Catherine, another ferry traveling the same route overnight in the opposite direction, received a distress message in which the Al Salam captain said his ship was in danger of sinking. The agency did not say how the Saint Catherine reacted.

Coastal stations received no SOS message from the crew, said Adel Shukri, head of administration at the Cairo headquarters of el-Salam Maritime Navigation.

The weather had been very poor overnight on the Saudi side of the Red Sea, with heavy winds and rain, he said. But visibility should have been good out at sea, he added.

Another company official, Andrea Odone, said he could not confirm that the ship had sunk or that there were any survivors. "It could take some hours to work out what happened," Odone told Reuters from the company headquarters.

Transport Minister Mohamed Lutfi Mansour told MENA the armed forces had deployed four rescue vessels at the scene.

Britain said it had diverted a warship, the HMS Bulwark, from a Red Sea patrol with 650 men on board including a company of Royal Marines, to aid in a rescue.

The ship, one of Britain's two new Albion-class amphibious assault ships, was 490 miles away, and would arrive at the scene within 48 hours, a spokesman said.

A sister ship of the sunken ferry, the Al Salam 95, sank in the Red Sea in October after a collision with a Cypriot commercial vessel. In that case almost all of the passengers were rescued.

The Al Salam 98 received a safety management certificate from an Italian organization in October 2005, covering safety drills and other on-board procedures.

In December 1991, 464 people were killed when the ship Salem Express hit coral outside Safaga, which lies 600 km (375 miles) southeast of Cairo.

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