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Ferry sinks in Tonga; dozens missing, feared dead

AN overnight ferry packed with sleeping passengers flipped in heavy seas near the Pacific island nation of Tonga, leaving more than 30 people missing and feared dead, officials said today.

Rescuers who plucked more than 50 survivors from the water were hopeful of finding more clinging to wreckage strewn over a wide area, but positive signs were fading after almost a full day's searching.

Tongan officials confirmed only two deaths, one of them a New Zealand man who was not further identified.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, hosting a summit of South Pacific leaders, indicated the toll was expected to rise much higher.

"There has been considerable loss of life," Rudd said in comments wrapping up the meeting in Cairns, northern Australia. "Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those that have been affected by this great tragedy."

Many of those unaccounted for were women and children who may have been trapped below decks when the Princess Ashika overturned around midnight yesterday some 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa, officials and a witness said.

The ferry was on its way from Nuku'alofa to outlying islands in Tonga's north. It sank in 115 feet (35 meters) of water in a location that had made rescue efforts difficult, Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelly said.

The exact number of people aboard and the number missing was not clear.

Tongan Transport Minister Paul Karalus said 86 passengers and crew were on board, raising a figure given earlier by New Zealand officials involved in the search. But Tongan police assistant commander Tupou Niua said 96 people were on a shipping company list.

Karalus said 33 people were listed as missing, but this could be off "by one or two" because of difficulties reconciling passenger lists with names survivors had given to authorities.

Survivor Siaosi Lavaka told the Matangi Tonga news Web site that women and children passengers were given cabins for the journey while men were closer to or on the upper decks.

"No women or children made it," Lavaka was quoted telling the Web site after he was returned to shore.

"It appears that those passengers who were inside the vessel in cabin-type accommodation did not actually gain exit; only those who were outside - hence the number of males as opposed to the number of females" rescued, Karalus told New Zealand's Prime News.

Kelly said late today that two bodies had been retrieved and 53 passengers and crew rescued.

Most were rescued from lifeboats soon after the search was launched early today, and there were no sightings of other survivors afterward, said Mike Roberts, a spokesman for the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center.

New Zealand has international responsibility for maritime search and rescue in the Tonga area, and it sent a military plane to help in the search, which also involved five boats from Tonga.

"We're hoping that we'll find more survivors effectively clinging to wreckage," Roberts told New Zealand's National Radio, adding that water temperatures of about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) could improve the chances of anyone still in the water.

Lavaka, whose mother was among the missing, said he woke to find the ferry rocking violently and waves breaking over the lower deck.

The rocking apparently moved cargo to one side of the vessel, unbalancing the ferry and turning it over, he said.

"We woke up to the sound of shouting and we jumped off," he told Matangi Tonga.

The ferry sank fast, "but we don't know why," said Neville Blackmore, another New Zealand rescue official. Karalus said weather conditions were the apparent cause.

Tonga is a deeply Christian nation, and the country's Crown Prince Toupoutoa Lavaka told Tongan TV that "in these adverse times it's always very helpful to depend on our faith."


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