, KINSHASA, Jul 30 – A river ferry disaster in the Democratic Republic of Congo has left at least 140 passengers dead, after the overcrowded boat hit a sandbank and capsized, officials said Thursday.
There were conflicting reports about how many people have survived.
The boat overturned Wednesday on the Kasai river, a tributary of the Congo river, in Bandundu province in the west of the vast central African country.
A local official in the Bandundu governor\’s office said that at least 140 people had died.
"I can confirm the accident," said the source, who asked not to be named.
The country\’s communications minister Lambert Mende said he was aware of "80 dead and 76 survivors" according to what he said was the ferry\’s passenger list, which officially named 180 passengers.
However he added that there were people who had secretly boarded the ferry.
"Since there were certainly clandestine passengers, other people will have fallen into the water," said Mende, adding they were still trying to find more survivors.
"There are too many people who are in the habit of travelling clandestinely," he said, which meant the death toll could rise.
Another local source reached by AFP earlier said that only two children had survived the tragedy.
The boat was carrying an unspecified number of passengers and goods from Mushie, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Bandundu, the province\’s chief town.
The accident happened when the boat struck a sandbank at Mangutuka, on the outskirts of Bandundu, said Mende.
Neither the UN mission for the stabilisation of the DR Congo (MONUSCO) nor the international Red Cross had any details of the shipwreck.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed France\’s sorrow over the numerous lives lost in the disaster.
"In such sorrowful circumstances, I want to express France\’s solidarity with the Congolese people and the authorities," Kouchner said in a statement extending condolences..
River transport is widely used throughout DR Congo, where the numerous waterways include the 4,700 kilometres (2,915 miles) long Congo river, which traverses seven of the country\’s 11 provinces.
Scores of people are killed each year in river disasters usually involving overcrowded boats.
In November last year, at least 73 people died when two linked barges sank on Mai-Ndombe lake in Bandundu province. In September 2009, more than 250 people died in three boat accidents on Congolese waterways.
In one of the worst incidents of recent years, some 200 people were reported missing after a fire broke out on a ferry on the Congo river in the northern Equateur province in 2004. The boat sank with almost 500 people on board.
Apart from overcrowding, other causes of accidents are the bad signposting of navigable channels, the absence of signal lights on boats and inexperienced pilots. Most vessels fail to meet basic safety requirements, including carrying life jackets and lifebelts.