, FREETOWN, Sep 10 – Around 200 people, including a large number of children, are missing feared drowned after a boat sank off the coast of Sierra Leone, the government said on Thursday.
At least 241 passengers were on board the vessel when it sank on Tuesday night southeast of the capital Freetown, but the overall number could be more than 300, said deputy transport minister Osmond Hanciles.
Ten bodies have been recovered, including two Thursday morning, according to Alfred Yanka, a senior local official in the coastal village of Shenge, near where the boat sank.
Police said 37 people had been rescued.
Yanka said the vessel had been located by rescue divers near Monkey Island, and divers said they believe many more bodies are trapped inside the sunken craft.
"We are busy trying to recover more bodies," Yanka told AFP by mobile phone. Officials said earlier that the search operation was being hampered by heavy rains.
Relatives of some of the survivors have bitterly criticised what they said were long delays in mounting a rescue attempt.
A parent of one of the missing children said it took some 10 hours for authorities to mount a search operation after a survivor had raised the alarm by swimming to shore with the aid of a five-gallon plastic container.
Survivors said the boat was carrying many parents and their children who were travelling to be admitted to schools and colleges in Freetown at the start of the academic year.
"The official list showed 241 passengers on board and these were only those who had cargoes on board and totally excluded the number of school children that were aboard," Hanciles told AFP.
"It is possible that there were over 300 people on board," the deputy minister added.
Information Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said the circumstances leading to the accident "will be thoroughly investigated."
"President Ernest Koroma feels very sad about the incident and he wants it to be known that the military and the navy did all that they could to make sure they took part in the effort to rescue the passengers. We are sending the condolence of the country to all," he added.
Officials say the boat sank in just a few minutes after being hit by strong winds and heavy rain.
However, Samuel Bangura, harbour master of one of the ports visited by the vessel, said "overloading may have been responsible for the disaster as the boat had huge drums of palm oil, bags of rice, kolanuts and other goods on board."
The boat had made several stops on the way to pick up passengers from at least 10 coastal villages when it capsized off Shenge.
Boat accidents are frequent during the West African country’s rainy season, and locals say many vessels used to ferry passengers around the coastal islands lack basic security equipment like life vests.